I’ve read four of Elizabeth Gilbert’s previous books – Eat Pray Love, Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, Big Magic and The Last American Man, but The Signature of All Things – long-listed for the 2014 Baileys Prize – is the first novel of hers I’ve read.
As Gilbert’s first work of fiction for over twelve years, and used as I am to her witty and inspiring advice found within the pages of her previous books, I didn’t really know what to expect from The Signature of All Things. I’d been recommended it some time ago by my friend Dani’s aunt but only just got around to reading it prior to my departure from Sydney. Much like when I was trying to finish the BBC Top 100 before I turned 30, the day before my flight to LA I was up with the birds at 4am to race through the last couple of hundred pages before departing for the US.
An enticing and absorbing read, The Signature of All Things is compelling novel that follows Alma Whitaker from a young child in Philadelphia to successful female botanist in nineteenth century America, Amsterdam, London and beyond. While the plot centres around Alma, the cast of characters in richly imagined – from her enterprising father who, despite being a poor-born Englishman, makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia – to her adopted sister, level-headed Prudence, their fair-weather friend Retta, and, perhaps most importantly of all – Ambrose Pike – the man with whom Alma eventually falls in love.
Fast-paced and fascinating in equal measure, The Signature of All Things is a tale that fuses the extraordinary with the ordinary; science with nature; love with loss, and goes a long way to prove that Gilbert’s imagination is as strong as her story-telling skills.