The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

17465453Alma Whittaker has a mind for classification, identification, detail, and scientific debate. All this makes her a wonderful scientist. It does not, however, make her very good at understanding the people in her life. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, follows Alma from her earliest days (in fact, the book actually covers her fathers life first), to her days exploring the island of Tahiti, to her final years in the Netherlands. She spends a lot of her life making brilliant discoveries about mosses (her chosen group of plants) but making a lot of mistakes about her family and friends. Slowly, she comes into a bit of wisdom—as well as working out a stunning scientific theory.

Alma was raised by her undemostrative and sometimes volatile parents to be inquisitive and anything but dull or stupid. She’s not lovely, but her parents don’t really care about that. They value a sharp mind more. Even after the Whittakers adopt the beautiful orphan Prudence, Alma still has pride of place. But even though she has her parents love, everyone else views Alma as odd and unfortunate. Alma seems destined to be a spinster from childhood. Her longing for someone to love her grows almost as quickly as her intellect. Though people are happy to debate with her, no one looks at her with desire.

The first two thirds of the book are slow. We watch Alma come of age while everyone around her marries off. Just when it seems like she has made her peace with her loveless life, Alma meets Ambrose, who sets off a crisis that sends Alma to Tahiti and her great discoveries about life and evolution. One the one hand, Ambrose’s actions could be seen as a good thing. Without him, Alma might have stayed on at her family estate, watching her mosses grow and writing dry books about them. On the other hand, his actions are a terrible heartbreak for Alma, because he was her last chance to have the kind of relationship she always wanted.

The last third of the book, set in Tahiti, feel completely different from the first two thirds. The land is wild compared to the tamed land of the Whittaker estate. The people operate by different rules and codes. But the change of scenery seems to be just what Alma needed to find her way to be complete and find her own purpose. The last third is just crammed with food for thought, almost to the point of being overstuffed.

I liked the ending of The Signature of All Things a lot. I appreciate the wisdom in it, though I wish that Alma had been able to have all of the things she wanted in life. It doesn’t seem fair that she gets to be a brilliant scientist who spends most of her life alone, especially after all the emotional build up of the first two thirds of the book. Perhaps, at the end, The Signature of All Things is a novel about making the best of what one has and what one is capable of. Life never does turn out the way we expect anyway.

One thought on “The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. This definitely sounds interesting. I think it’s nice that she isn’t given everything she wants in life; sometimes, that’s how life works out. Great review!

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