Monday, January 12, 2015

Books: The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Kindle Edition (513 pages)
Copyright 2013

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, a nonfiction account of Gilber's efforts to change her life, which I read, turns her attention to fiction and the 19th century in this character study and saga.

Alma Whittaker is born with a silver spoon, the only child of a self-made millionaire who found his fortune in botany and plants. Her father, Henry Whittaker, would have ended up dead or jailed had not another man of wealth, Sir Joseph Banks, who established the Kew Gardens in London, noticed the lad's keen mind. Banks sends Henry around the world to gather plant specimens for him. Henry eventually outshines his patron and sets up his own botanist world first in India and then in Philadelphia.

Along the way he chooses a wife, Beatrix, not for love but for her mind and family ties to another botanical family in the Dutch lands. She gives him Alma.

Alma is not pretty but she is brilliant. She is raised to think, to question, and to never take any answer for granted. There is little of the spiritual, the mystical, or the religious in her life, though her mother takes her to church every Sunday. The larger questions of gods and the universe are not where Alma's focus lies: instead, she is drawn to the minutia of the world, right down to the very dirt upon which we tread and take for granted.

I loved this character. I loved her inquisitive mind, her desires for constant learning, her need to make a difference in the world as she understands it. I love that she learns from her mistakes, that she realizes she is human, and that perfection is unattainable but one can live a magnificent and noble life anyway.

This story covers over 100 years, since it also tells her father's backstory, and during Alma's lifetime she experiences great minds and great wealth, and small minds and poverty. Throughout all of her trials, she is always thinking. She makes great contributions to science and in the course of her studies begins to understand the theory of evolution. While of course not as heralded as her male counterparts, she discovers that things change and mutate in order to survive the conditions placed upon them.

Her one big question, at the end, is humanity, and what she ultimately calls "the Prudence problem." Prudence, her adopted sister, gives up all wealth in order to work with abolitionists, to take in orphans, and perform other altruistic and charitable things. These actions, at the time thought to be unique to humans, are at odds with the survival of the fittest notions to which evolution lends itself.

This book is a great story of a strong woman, and I hope it serves an inspiration everywhere to women who find their lots in lives are not as they had hoped. Passion, it seems, however one finds it, can make a difference and help with happiness, regardless of circumstance.

5 stars

2 comments:

  1. I have not read that one. I have indeed read Eat, Pray, Love and rather enjoyed the movie more. Thanks for the review...adding it to my ever growing list. Blessings

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  2. Had not heard of this one. I have Eat, Pray, Love in Mount TBR, but who knows how long it will take me to get to it? :-\

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