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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I thought this was an excellent book. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as I did because it sounded a bit worthy and turgid from the description: the life story of a wealthy 19th Century woman from Philadelphia who has an interest in the study of mosses doesn't immediately grab my attention as a must-read book, but I found it exceptionally good from beginning to end. It is readable, engrossing, extremely interesting and rather touching in many places.

The plot has been well summarized elsewhere so I won't go over it again. The story kept me reading, but what was exceptionally good, I thought, was the characterization and the sense of period. Elizabeth Gilbert creates exceptionally real, believable characters and Alma, in particular, is an engaging, flawed but deeply understandable and, to me, likeable character. Similarly, Gilbert portrays the life, the attitudes and the preoccupations of the time beautifully. Her skill in this put me in mind slightly of Patrick O'Brian, although the book is very different from O'Brian in many ways. However, it does have that wonderful gift of storytelling with excellent, readable prose and the sense of complete immersion in and understanding of the period. The language is wholly believable and there is a sense throughout of deep learning ,lightly worn.

This also comes over superbly in the intellectual insights into the period's upheavals in biology, particularly evolution. It is a rare pleasure to find such deep understanding in a novel not only of the ideas themselves but of their effect on individuals.

This a book which I was sorry to finish. It was a pleasure to read and had important things to say about all sorts of things: the nature of fulfilment and unfulfilment, of desire, of self-awareness, of what a life well-lived might be...and so on. It is simply terrific, and I recommend it in the warmest terms.
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I don't ever remember reading a book that enthralled me so much, whilst at the same time being so rambling and limp. The Signature of All Things on one level isn't my thing at all. Set in the 19th Century, it's a story about one woman and her peculiar take on the world. It's about society and a woman's place being constricted by the social mores of the time. On another level the book is exactly my sort of thing; history of science blended with questions about the existence of God. I suppose that's why I had two such conflicting reactions to the book.

Alma Whittaker is the only child of a rich American landowner, the irascible Henry Whittaker and his wife, Beatrix. Both have brilliant minds. Beatrix is of Dutch puritan descent, and has a rigorous logical approach to life and learning. She raises her daughter in her own image. Alma grows up isolated, with little companionship her own age, pressed into learning almost every waking moment. Her dinner table conversations are scientific discourse and logical rigour. Alma is highly intelligent and focussed, yet completely unprepared for anything remotely resembling real life.

I very much enjoyed the opening of the book, which begins before the birth of Alma, charting the rise of her father. Born to a master orchardman, 'The Apple Magus', Henry Whittaker grew up sleeping on a mud floor. Being gifted horticultural expertise from his father, Henry is able to make himself useful around Kew gardens, where his father works. Henry is also able to make a small fortune, illegally selling samples and cuttings from the garden. Samples jealously guarded by Kew's curator Sir Joseph Banks. Discovery leaves Henry with very few choices, and so it is he finds himself on board ship with Captain Cook, where he becomes the expedition's horticultural expert.

Henry Whittaker is the first of several strong characters in the book. The opening half of the novel that deals with his life as explorer, landowner and family man of sorts, are excellent. Most of his life we see through the eyes of Alma, who is another fine creation. Gilbert captures her with a beautiful blend of strength and fragility. She is a woman out of time. She has so much more than many of her contemporaries yet lacks the things she desperately desires.

In the second half of the book, Alma starts to move out from the shadow of her father, and explore where her own life faltered. I found the third quarter of the book very hard going. Boring even. There seemed to be much navel gazing and repetition; much of the plot and themes seemed derivative, unlike the first half. I continued on, but had this not been a book group choice, I may have abandoned it, so fed up I became with treading water.

I've since discussed the novel with my book group, and I was pretty much the only person to have such issues with this segment, although it was generally agreed it is the weakest. There is some strong evocative writing, but it didn't really seem to have much justification. Having completed the book, I have a strong feeling that, had I skipped the third quarter, I wouldn't have missed much and the book would still largely have made sense. It's probably no coincidence that the middle of the novel contains its spiritual heart. As one might expect from the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven't read), The Signature of All Things has a strong spiritual element. It's with these elements I had the most difficulty.

The novel is drawn between three points. Science, the strict religious outlook of the time and an amorphous all encompassing idea of a spiritual connection. Boil this triangle down to a singularity, I suppose you would find yourself left with faith. Faith in God, faith in science or the faith that things work out according to some cosmic order. The problem for me is buying into that cosmic order. Whilst reading the novel, it didn't work for me; it felt like a silly device to keep things ticking over. I found it difficult to maintain interest in a novel so deeply immersed in the fanciful. After finishing, I realised that perhaps the spiritual side amounted to little more than wishful thinking on the part of its players. They weren't listening to some great cosmic spirit, but instead acting on their secret, unexpressed, internal wishes. This interpretation makes the whole novel more palatable, but I only made it after completing the book. When reading I didn't care for these sections at all.

So having been bitterly disappointed, feeling let down after such a promising beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of the book. If the Signature of All Things is a 'quest' novel, it is a quest for self. Now late on in years, looking back, Alma can evaluate her life, and decide whether it is a success. She spent years studying the mosses on her estate. A slow painstaking process, that mirrors Alma's own evolution. Her comprehensive study of an ecosystem in miniature leads her to some challenging (for the time) conclusions about the origins of species, and the book returns to its scientific roots. Here the novel dovetails well with the scientific period it is written.

On finishing the book, I was left satisfied. There was much in I enjoyed. The science and scientists of the time are brilliantly brought to life. Gilbert writes fully about her chosen subject, but does so whilst keeping it interesting. The novel's strong and interesting characters make it a worthwhile read. There were elements I didn't like, but overall, I am glad I persevered to the end. The Signature of All Things was a good choice for a book group, with lots of facets worthy of discussion. Imperfect books often to give rise to the best conversations.
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on 29 November 2013
Elizabeth brings in the subject of survival by looking at differences in circumstances and upbringing of the diverse characters in the book. Although Alma is the main character , I find Henry to be my favorite character and he is the stepping stone and strength of the book. It touches a bit on the spiritual world and God, often in conflict with logic and reasoning, though there seems to be a marriage between the two as the book settles down in another place and time.
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on 22 January 2014
I took a few days to ruminate on this novel before writing a review. At first, I think I may have undersold it but having spent a few days pondering some of the reasons why I only give four stars, just one really could have been addressed to my satisfaction.

Overall, the book was a deeply thoughtful, imaginative piece of historical fiction. The prose was beautiful; reminiscent of the Victorian era, but not so dense that it would lose modern readers.

The choice of third person narrative has some drawbacks as other reviewers have noted. I think it adds to the perspective of the book, especially when it plays with time (moss time, human time, divine time, etc.) and with space - the microscopic to our galaxy. However, it does fall short in creating tension to keep us reading, especially without any "bad guy." In some cases, it was starting to feel too slow, especially before the introductions of Retta and later Ambrose. While it does allow the reader some insight into the motivations of Henry and Alma in particular, it falls seriously short with Prudence, particularly when her choices have such an impact on Alma's thinking later in her life. This is why I only gave four stars.

Clearly, Gilbert did her research and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about characters from Captain Cook to Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace. It was not wrapped up in a perfectly tidy ending, which one would expect from a piece of fiction such as this. Our heroine experiences tragedy but overcomes it, and doesn't leave us feeling depressed but rather that she has grown from it.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have a fairly short attention span, and this is a long novel by contemporary standards, but it gripped my interest from the beginning and held it throughout.

If I had to characterise a theme, it would be the joy of scientific discovery, and the immense beauty and diversity of the material world. I stress material world, as there is often a fashion to turn to the spiritual or the unseen as somehow loftier, or more mystical, or more worthy of attention - but this book reminds us on every page that the world we actually live in and can experience directly with our senses is breathtaking and absorbing in its own right.

It follows the life of central protagonist Alma Whittaker - gifted and privileged botanist who immerses herself in the world of mosses - from her birth in 1800 to her death in 1882. This might sound dry to a non-scientist, but it is the human emotions and drives as well as the thrill of discovery that advances the story line. The characters are so wonderfully real that I found myself periodically stopping to google to see if any of them actually existed. Most of them it would appear are purely fictional - but the author blends their fates with actual places, events and historical figures so skilfully that you are never sure of the exact dividing line between fact and fiction. Most of the story takes place in Philadelphia, but there are also excursions to Fiji, Peru (via her father's early travels) and later Tahiti and Holland. Huge historical events (the discovery of quinine, cultivation of vanilla, the struggle for abolition and the American Civil War, the publication of Origin of the Species, etc) are effortlessly woven into the story.

One of those stories that you simultaneously cannot put down but do not want to end. Just wonderful.
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on 11 August 2014
The best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love could have decided based on the book's success to play it safe and write more autobiographical books about her life and spiritual journey. After reading The Signature Of All Things, it is apparent to me that Elizabeth Gilbert did not play it safe. In fact this 600+ page novel is quite an ambitious undertaking. Having read both Eat, Pray, Love and Committed and loving both books, I was a bit dubious about The Signature Of All Things. If I am honest, it just did not sound like a book I wanted to read. What I had gleaned was that the book was a period novel based on the science of Botany with the main character being a female Botanist. Oh dear! Yet, the conundrum was that I really did yearn to read more by Elizabeth Gilbert. Still, I kept putting it off until after hearing more and more of the book's success and it being printed in different countries and in many languages I finally succumbed to reading the book. I am truly very glad that I did!

I am also glad that I knew so little about the book when I began reading it for this book really surprised me. It is so much more than just a period novel about a Botanist. This book causes the imagination to bloom in panoramic proportions so that what you envision is breathtakingly beautiful. Besides that, it is exceptionally well-researched. Those with an adventurous spirit will find themselves soaring. Contemplatives will find their minds being further challenged while lovers of science will find satisfaction.

Partly into the book, I thought I knew what the book was about; then surprise after surprise enters into the story. It isn't as if the story changes direction. It was more like a flower bud opening layer upon layer of petals so that each time something new was revealed it added to making the story more captivating. I found myself often wondering, "NOW where is this story going?" My conclusion is that The Signature Of All Things is Elizabeth Gilbert's current masterpiece. How she will top this, I don't know but I will never again hesitate to read more by her!
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on 20 April 2014
This is a fine piece of well –researched historical fiction, but the spirit of another book hides in its pages.
The story of the life of Alma Whittaker begins in Philadelphia in 1800. Her father is wealthy, a dealer in rare plants; from him she inherits an interest in naturalism. Her mother gifts her a sharp questioning mind, which she applies to botany. She becomes a scientist. Central to the novel are her attempts to account for the diversity she discovers in the shadow of trees and on the surface of boulders. There is a great deal about plants, evolution and Darwin in this book. Elizabeth Gilbert has researched these subjects well.
The author gives the same attention to the detail of Alma’s sexuality as Alma herself does to ferns and moss. The descriptions are quite frank; other readers have noted this. More fundamental questions emerge from her scientific work and her biological urges. She has a number of “adventures” as she attempts to understand herself, plants and the place of both in the universe. You may appreciate that this is not a million miles from Eat, Pray, Love. There are other similarities in general and in the detail.
The author writes really well and can be very amusing. She creates a great variety of characters. There is a good plot. Darwinism and Social Darwinism receive a good airing. You will know a bit of horticulture by the time you finish, too. However
I understand the author wanted to rescue now-forgotten female scientists, but her main character is not a Lise Meitner or a Dorothy Hodgkin, more of an Elizabeth Gilbert. Alma is not a credible scientist. She seems rather more to be on a journey to find herself and to find love. Which made this novel a Victorian rendering of that bestseller.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Alma Whittaker is the heroine of this engaging book. The story starts with her father Henry Whittaker, born in poverty near Kew just outside London. his story is interesting but his daughter Alma born 1800 is the star.
Henry's father worked in Kew Gardens. This is the tiny seed from which Henry grew ideas and the determination that made him a wealthy man. He married Beatrix a Dutch woman and together they settled in Pennsylvania USA. Alma their only natural surviving daughter is given an upbringing that encourages her to develop her intelligence and intellect and inevitably her interest in plants.

Though wonderful and rich in many ways, Alma's life is not easy. She is very clever but her physicality is clumsy and unattractive. Her parents have adopted Prudence who is beautiful and the two are sisters who do not know how to communicate with each other . Yet each will profoundly affect the other's life.

As I hate spoilers I will not say how or why.
I loved the discoveries I made turning each page and wouldn't want to spoil that for someone else. However I do feel I can say that Alma does travel not only to Tahiti, and that towards the end of her life she has developed her own theory of how species have evolved. She won't publish, and not so long after the famous "Origin of Species" is published. Today we may not realise what an impact this had at the time.

This book is so much more than a historical novel.
Elizabeth Gilbert has written from deep within Alma and breathed life into her. To me Alma became a real person, I felt she must have lived! She is so vivid and solid.
This novel has been a truly wonderful read. Not only is it full of interesting historical details, that are mostly, but not only of the botanical world, but it is written with such warmth and vividness that I was able to travel to Tahiti in the 19th century, in the mind of a singular, brave and intelligent woman.

This is definitely a book I will reread and one to recommend. I think it is a wonderful rich novel.
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on 23 March 2014
"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert is story told in the way the stories were once told.

On its more than 500 pages, action takes place over several continents and lasts a century long beginning with Henry Whittaker character, once poor man from England that due to his trading will become very rich person in Philadelphia.
The reader then meets his daughter Alma who is born on beginning of 19th century, clever girl interested in science and nature, who like to read and learn Greek and Latin.
Alma will become a botanist and sue to her research she will be pulled into the new and exciting world of evolution. But despite her wealth and education she isn't happy person.
Eventually she will find her soul mate in Ambrose Pike, who is a talented botanic, great illustrator and spiritualist.

Due to her love, she will be drawn into complete opposite direction, into the spiritual and magical world. The two of them will start travelling around the world, trying to understand the way our world is functioning, but also trying to understand their relationship.
Their relationship marked by their differences that brought them together completely.
During their life and their travels, in a world that is changing rapidly, reader will witness exciting time of human history when all the old assumptions were put into question, while two of them will visit places all around the world and meet numerous people that will make this story unique and unforgettable...

Although I didn't read Elizabeth Gilbert's previous novel "Eat, Pray, Love" this one seemed interesting and indeed it was an interesting book to read, written in a bit of old-fashioned grandiose way.

The author's style is very special and subtle while she describes events from the 19th century that seem so genuine in her writing.
Speaking about the novel's characters, Alma is special woman who besides her wealth and education decided to make some unusual choices. These choices will lead to consequences that together with the time and world she was living in, will mark her fate.

In the end, reader will see that between her life and botany she adored so much exists much symbolism - she was like a flower who struggled to grow and prosper but until she found perfect soil for that she was unhappy...

"The Signature of All Things" is novel that can be easily loved, due to author's beautiful literary style full of interesting places and convincing characters.
Therefore, although you read previous Elizabeth Gilbert's novels or not, I can recommend taking some time to enjoy this beautiful book.
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on 15 June 2015
One of the best books I have read. A truly epic tale that takes the reader on a remarkable journey, not just across the globe, but also through the head and heart of a woman across her whole life. I have always been a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, and loved Eat, Pray, Love. With this novel the author offers an entirely new way of reading her work. The language is rich, evocative and indulgent, without being at all over the top. Alma Whittaker is not an obvious heroine and is not particularly likeable, but you still can't help but root for her and connect with her passion and sense of longing.

This is a big book, but you don't particularly notice it as a reader. By the time I had finished reading it, I felt as though I had been on an adventure with Alma, and I would be happy to join her over and over again. I was sad when it ended, but satisfied that everything was left as it should be. The Signature of All Things is one of the few books I would enjoy reading a second time, maybe even a third. Elizabeth Gilbert has become an expert at her craft, and whilst she is well practised, she is never predictable. Review by Vanessa Matthews, Author, The Doctor's Daughter (published May 2015)
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