The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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The Signature of All Things

Five words from the blurb: botanical, explorer, woman, independent, evolution

The Signature of All Things was the best novel I read in 2013. It is a rich, atmospheric story about one woman and her passion for moss. I know that sounds like the dullest premise imaginable, but Elizabeth Gilbert has woven horticultural details with amazing characters and a heartwarming series of events to create a fantastic novel that gets better every time you think about it.

The book begins in 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker. Her father’s passion for botany infects her and she gains an interest in moss. Her studies soon get her thinking about evolution and this leads her on a journey that encompasses several continents and enables her to meet a range of fascinating people.

I’m not a keen gardener, but I found the details about plant collecting and classification fascinating. It was eye-opening to learn about the infancy of this industry and the difficulties faced by those trying to cultivate plants like vanilla for the first time.

The book was made extra special by Alma Whittaker – one of the best female protagonists I’ve ever come across. It was a rare pleasure to be able to follow a character from birth into old age with a complete understanding of their fears, desires and motivations. I loved the way that she changed and developed as she aged:

“But you are still young, so you think only of your own self. You do not notice the tribulations that occur all around you, to other people. Do not protest; it is true. I am not condemning you. I was as selfish as you, when I was your age. It is the custom of the young to be selfish. But someday you will understand that nobody passes through this world without suffering – no matter what you think of them and their supposed good fortune.”

Racist/homophobic attitudes were occasionally difficult to stomach, but I think they helped to show how far we’ve come since then.

The plot was slow, but it never dragged and I loved being immersed in the past. Everything appeared to be incredibly well researched (although I’m no expert) and I loved the way that fact and fiction were blended together. It was simply good, old-fashioned story telling with no tricks or gimmicks.

The Signature of All Things is one of those books that sounds far less interesting than it actually is. Trust me. Give it a try!

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33 Comments

  1. I started reading this, and found it more interesting than I expected to, but I just had so many other books clamoring for my attention that I put it down and haven’t picked it back up yet. I’m actually quite interested in Victorian lady scientists, so I’m sure I’ll circle back around to it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, This is a slow burner so I can see why other books shouted at you more, but I recommend getting back to it. I think it is worth all the effort required.

  2. I’m nearing the end of the audio version and am in total awe of Juliet Stevenson’s narration. The story is so much better than expected and although it dragged a bit in the Tahiti section, I’ll be giving the book a very high rating, too.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, I’m actually surprised to hear that this one works on audio – I’d have thought the slow pace and limited dialogue wouldn’t have suited that form, but it is good to know Stevenson has done a good job. I’ll pass the message on :-)

      1. It was a surprise to me, too. I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love and was planning to give this one a pass. Only chose to listen because I’ve enjoyed Stevenson’s previous narrations and an audio review copy showed up on my doorstep. I’m so glad it did!

        1. Jackie says:

          JoAnn, I haven’t tried Eat, Pray, Love as it didn’t appeal. Does that mean you think I should pass on all her earlier books?

          1. You might want to pass on her nonfiction/memoirs. Not sure if Signature is comparable to her earlier fiction, but I’d be willing to give it a try.

  3. Kailana says:

    I really need to give Elizabeth Gilbert a try. I will add her to my list for 2014. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, I think she is one of those authors with the ability to write with very different writing styles so don’t be put off if you don’t enjoy the first one you try. I look forward to seeing what you make of her!

  4. Well, we certainly agree on this one. This was my Christmas comfort read and had been looking forward to it for a while as my best book buddy friend absolutely adored it and passed it over, with corners of pages already turned down to indicate favourite passages – which is quite an experience trying to second guess which was the special line that made her do so.

    I think Elizabeth Gilbert has such a way with words and is clearly passionate herself and it comes over in the character of Alma wonderfully.

    I enjoyed the Tahiti section for the philosophical learning it gave her, how Elizabeth Gilbert manages to channel that young man and his articulate and enlightening speech to Alma, I will never know, there are some fantastic lines in that dialogue that really highlight the essence of character of all three people concerned in that scene. and the location, talk about inspire the imagination. So glad to have imagined it myself before someone tries to create it on celluloid.

    Anyway, happy to have shared a wonderful reading experience. Happy Reading for 2014!

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It is good to know you felt the same way! I found it a real comfort read too. I read it slowly over quite a long period of time (6 weeks?) and almost grieved the fact I couldn’t spend more time with the characters.

      I forgot to mention in my comment to JoAnn, but I agree with you – I loved the Tahiti section. I think it helped Alma discover a lot about herself and was the perfect way to close off that section of her life. I really hope this book wins lots of awards.

  5. When I saw this on the Morning News Tournament list, I was a bit hesitant; I loved something early of hers but wasn’t terrifically fond of one of her more recent books, and that was the stand-out memory rather than the positive one. But I’m more interested now, and I would love to enjoy it as much as you have.

    1. Jackie says:

      Buried in Print, I was really pleased to see it on the Tournament of Books list. I hope that it does well and encourages a lot more people to give it a try. I really hope that you decide to read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. Great to hear as I just picked up the audio version from the library.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, Well JoAnn says the audio is fantastic so hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as we did. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  7. I have to say, “one woman and her passion for moss” could be a hard sell, but I think you’ve sold it! – strong, independent, thinking woman heroine + great writing sounds unbeatable.

    1. Jackie says:

      Vicki, I never thought I’d be encouraging people to read books about moss, but it is so worth it! I hope you decide to read it.

  8. Annabel says:

    Sold! I’ve ordered it (via your click-through). Shame I’ll have to wait until April and the end of my TBR reading to start it though. I love reading about the plant-collectors and scientific pioneers.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Yay! Thank you :-) I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  9. tanya says:

    Your review is the first review that has actually made me want to read this book. Everyone says it’s great, but they said that about Eat, Pray, Love as well. I just might give this one a try.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tanya, I haven’t read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ as it didn’t sound like my sort of thing at all. I am tempted to give it a try now, if only to compare the two. I hope you decide to read ‘Signature’ I think you’ll enjoy it :-)

  10. Kristie says:

    I was actually really intrigued by the topic of this one, but was really but off by Eat, Pray, Love. Will have to give Elizabeth Gilbert a second try. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kristie, Thanks for the kind words. I hope that you enjoy it!

  11. Ifi says:

    Oh sob,
    I’m in a major reading slump. Been stuck on the same page since December!
    Can’t get excited about anything. So moss?!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Sorry to hear that you’re in a reading slump :-( I’m not sure that this is the best way to get out of that slump as it is so slow. I prescribe ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore’ followed by this. Hopefully that will get you back on the reading track. Good luck!

  12. Laura T says:

    I really enjoyed this one as well. At the beginning of the book, I thought that Alma was going to be a cliched ‘modern’ C19th protagonist and expected to dislike her, but I loved the way her character developed and grew as the narrative unfolded.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I didn’t know where it was going in the beginning, but I quite liked that! It didn’t really matter because I was so interested in all the little facts about life back then. Glad you enjoyed it too!

  13. I’ve really enjoyed Gilbert’s nonfiction so I definitely plan to pick this one up. Your naming it the best book of 2013 certainly makes me want to read it soon!

    1. Jackie says:

      Heather, I haven’t tried any of her non-fiction, but based on the quality of her writing I’m keen to give it a try!

  14. I have the audio version of this on hold at the library. It really doesn’t sound all that good, but I’ll eventually give it a try. Your post is very encouraging. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Joy, It’s such a shame that it sounds so boring as I know a lot of people will be put off. I hope you decide to give it a try and can persuade a few more people to give it a go!

  15. Steph says:

    Wow! I was so surprised to read this gushing review from you on Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed it so much (in part because it’s a finalist for the ToB and so I’m intending to try it myself!). I have mixed feelings about Gilbert as last year I tried to read Eat, Pray, Love as we were heading to Bali and it seemed appropriate. I actually quite enjoyed her authorial voice but I found the content incredibly tiresome and inane and so stalled out once she reached India; I just can’t take that much navel-gazing in a novel/memoir/book! Still, I thought she had talent as an author and her writing really was occasionally quite brilliant so I think I might do better with one of her works of fiction where she is not the star of the show, so to speak.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I haven’t read ‘Eat Pray, Love’ so can’t compare the two, but I can reassure you that there is no navel-gazing in this book! I hope that you decide to give it a try and enjoy it as much as I did.

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