Monday, April 14, 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Title: The Signature of All Things
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Read by:  Juliet Stevenson
Penguin Audio
Length: 21.5 hour (18 CDs)
Source:  Review Copy from Penguin Audio – Thanks!

Eat, Pray, Love, was pure torture for me.  Needless to say, I was wary of picking up another book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  But then I kept hearing wonderful reviews of The Signature of All Things.  It was not a memoir, but a historical fiction novel about a botanist.  That sounded like a book right up my alley.  I put it on my “to read” list and was more than a little happy to receive an audiobook copy from Penguin Books to review.   I was not disappointed by this novel.

Henry Whittaker is a poor Englishman that wants to improve his lot in life. With pluck and a head for business and botany, Henry becomes an 18th century explorer sailing with Captain Cook on Cook’s last voyage.  He eventually ends up in South American learning about the Quinine trade.  He learns everything about to grow it in other locations and to make a great profit. This is the start of his vast botanical empire.  He marries Beatrix, a practical Dutch woman from a botanical family of her own and they settle in Philadelphia, building a grand estate, White Acre.

Henry and Beatrix only have one daughter that lives through childbirth, Alma.  Alma is a plain, sensible girl with a thirst for knowledge and a heart full of passion. Beatrix and Henry have a regimented education for Alma starting from her infancy. She gains a new sister after her parents adopt Prudence, a girl who lost her parents due to tragedy.  Prudence is a beautiful girl and then a beautiful young woman that makes Alma feel for the first time that she is plain.  The two do not form a bond, but become closer when Retta Snow moves next door and inserts herself into the household.  The three grow up together, but a love triangle (or perhaps quadrangle) tears them all apart, and Alma is left alone at White Acre caring for her father and managing the Whittaker estate and business.  
 Alma continues in this role and becomes an expert on moss.  It is not until she is a woman of 48 that she meets the love of her life, Ambrose Pike.  You’ll have to read the book to see what happens next, but Alma discovers herself and journeys around the world from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. 

I was riveted.  I loved how Alma was a strong woman that truly discovered herself and came into her own in her fifties.  I liked how I thought I knew what the story was about, but that the book kept surprising me along the way.  I also enjoyed that Gilbert wrote it in the style of a Victorian novel.  I felt like I could have been reading a vintage novel written during that time period.  

This was a great audiobook to listen to.  It was long, but a riveting story.  Juliet Stevenson is a wonderful narrator.  I have enjoyed books she has narrated before, but she was especially excellent narrating The Signature of All Things.  The only part I didn’t like about the book was that there is a CD that dragged on forever where Alma learns how to pleasure herself.  I so didn’t need to hear about it.  I was not on board and thought it was a side bar that should have been edited out.  Then as I continued through the book, it all clicked together on why you learned that about Alma.  

Overall, The Signature of All Things was a unique novel with a strong heroine and a great historical and scientific setting.  I highly recommend it.


  1. I agree whole-heartedly with everything you've written here! After my negative reaction to Eat, Pray, Love, I had no intention of reading this book and only decided to give it a try after receiving an audio review copy. So glad I did.

  2. I'm on the wait list for the audio copy at my library--the more I read about this book, the more eager I am to listen to it. I liked Eat, Pray, Love, but I know many had lots of issues with it.

    Glad you warned about the section that should be a sidebar. I was thinking about listening to this on a family road trip in May, but I should probably rethink that plan and go with a more benign book.

  3. I was keen to read the this as the previous book of the author had totally got me hooked... and I was a little nervous.. as generally when we expect a lot.. things do not get matched to the levels. Now having read the book... I can very gladly say that I found it equally amazing... The characters in the book are strong, especially if I talk about the lead, Alma, I found her awsome.. Her feelings, thoughts. actions have been very beautifully described and aomewhere somehow happen to relate to every gal reading the book. From materialistic description, thirst for knowlwdge to spiritual insight... everything flows like a beautiful infact indispensable sequence thereby truly signing for all things.

  4. I'm glad to see you all enjoyed it as much as I did! I thought Alma was a very strong and original protagonist. I am glad I gave Elizabeth Gilbert another chance. I brought this to book club and recommended it to my friends as well!