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The Signature of All Things: A Novel [Hardcover]

Elizabeth Gilbert
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 1 2013
A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

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Praise for The Signature of All Things

“Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act.  The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.”—Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] rip-roaring tale… Its prose has the elegant sheen of a 19th-century epic, but its concerns — the intersection of science and faith, the feminine struggle for fulfillment, the dubious rise of the pharmaceutical industry — are essentially modern.”—Steve Almond, The New York Times Magazine
“The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert’s 20-year career:  a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist.”—Alexandra Alter, The Wall Street Journal
“A  radiant novel…that rare literary achievement, a big, panoramic novel about life and love…Like Victor Hugo or Emile Zola, Gilbert captures something important about the wider world in The Signature of All Things:  a pivotal moment in history when progress defined us in concrete ways.”—Marie Arana, The Washington Post
“A delightful book…one of the best of the year…Gilbert marries the technical, cultural and spiritual with a warm, frankly funny wit… This kind of storytelling is rare – one in which an author can depict the particulars of a moss colony as skillfully as she maps the landscape of the human heart.”—Lizzie Skurnick, “All Things Considered,” NPR
“Gilbert’s sumptuous third novel, her first in thirteen years, draws openly on nineteenth-century forebears:  Dickens, Eliot, and Henry James…Gilbert’s prose is by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.”The New Yorker
“Engrossing…The Signature of All Things is one of those rewardingly fact-packed books that make readers feel bold and smart by osmosis.  Alma commits her life to ceaseless study, but reading this vibrant, hot-blooded book about her takes no work at all.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Gilbert has mulled, from the confines of her desk, the correlations of nature, the principle that connects a grain of sand to a galaxy, to create a character who does the same – who makes the study of existence her life’s purpose.  And in doing so, she has written the novel of a lifetime.”O, The Oprah Magazine
“A fabulous read…Gilbert has returned to fiction with a boisterous historical novel about a 19th-century botanist named Alma Whittaker…Alma’s fabulous brain is a hot pot of scientific knowledge, lonely feminist turmoil and erotic longing.  All of which makes her an irresistible character to accompany through history and around the world.”—Helen Rogan, People
“Raucously ingenious…Signature is not just a historical novel that spans two centuries and many geographies…I found unshackled joy on every page…a novel of brave and lovely ideas.”—Beth Kephart, The Chicago Tribune

About the Author

Elizabeth Gilbert is an award-winning writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Her short story collection, Pilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her novel, Stern Men, was a New York Times Notable Book. Her 2002 book, The Last American Man, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which has been published in more than thirty languages; a film based on the memoir, starring Julia Roberts, opened in August 2010. Her most recent book, the memoir Committed: A Love Story, appeared in 2010. In 2008, Time magazine named Gilbert one of the most influential people in the world. Her website is

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly lovely book. Oct. 16 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I loved this book. Alma Whittaker is a marvellous character, and it is wonderful for once to read about a woman who manages to be compelling without also having to be physically beautiful. All the characters are well drawn and the narrative has a satisfying pace that carries the reader effortlessly into each new phase of the novel. This is a book that I will definitely come back to.....probably more than once.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous read Oct. 19 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
From page one this is an engaging story. It has adventure, history, botany, social strife, sensuality and compassion. The story is beautifully woven together by its focus being of Alma. I love a book that opens up doors to new explorations and this one certainly did that... Do I really want to jump into the world of Jacob Boehme and Christian mysticism?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Age of Enlightenment Nov. 28 2013
This novel spans the nineteenth century, or the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and is the story of Alma Whittaker, who was born in Philadelphia to extraordinary parents. Her mother, Beatrix, came from a Dutch family of botanists and her father, Henry was born in England, his father being the King’s Apple Magus at Kew. Henry himself had sailed the globe as a young man and had made his fortune by helping the Dutch East India Company to break the Jesuit’s monopoly on Cinchona (Quinine).

From her mother Alma learned many languages and from her father much about botany and how to grow mosses. She became something of an expert on the latter and had books published on their development, cultivation and categorisation. She marries late and the marriage is a failure, but when her father dies Alma decides to retrace her husband’s footsteps to Tahiti and to seek out the truth about the contents of his mysterious valise. This is truly a voyage of discovery which takes her to strange places, not all of which are charted.

When Alma arrives back in her mother’s hometown of Amsterdam she is reunited with her maternal family. She reads of Darwin’s theories of evolution which accord with many of her own ideas and observations. She finds a kindred spirit in Alfred Russell Wallace who has also developed many theories similar to her own but has also never solved the evolutionary explanation for human altruism and self sacrifice.

This is an extraordinary novel of an evolving century, encapsulated in the unlikely form of Alma Whittaker. It is, itself, a voyage of discovery rather than arrival, slow moving rather than pacey and perhaps a little on the lengthy side for my personal preferences. However, it is certainly a thought provoking read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking story Jan. 15 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Just finished reading this amazing novel. I didn't want to put it down! Easy and captivating to read! Simply a masterpiece.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow! Jan. 4 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Just finished (reluctantly) this masterful novel. What a story. what an adventure. i loved every page and am so pleased that I tripped upon this book quite accidentally. Well-written, even for a book snob like me. What I also liked was the length. It is a real journey -- one that is thankfully not cut short. i didn't want it to end until the end.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Phenomenological Gem Nov. 17 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As a woman scientist and author wholly immersed in the study of the natural world in this male dominated field, I relished with great ardor every word on every page. What a rich find! A true piece of literature attempting to illuminate truth between the mechanical and mystical divide. The schizophrenic spilt still predominates in our midst and Gilbert has laid down every nuance of this quantum divide. Well done!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant author. Brilliant book! Nov. 10 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The book is brilliantly written and has some humoristic passages which makes it first class reading. I warmly recommend it!
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Ms Gilbert is a delightful writer - I enjoy her style and respect how much research goes into every book she writes. The only thing I don't enjoy is when the book ends. However, I have picked up another of her wonderful stories and I'm satisfied once again. For anyone who appreciates human nature and it's unbridled flaws yet can associate with the characters, this is a must read.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Loved this book, many twists and turns and an unconventional heroine.
Published 14 days ago by Nadine Kirk
4.0 out of 5 stars Totally different from Eat Pray Love!
Listening to it for the second time, so it keeps me coming back. Yet there is an undefinable something about it that has left me wanting more. Some pretty dry sections. Read more
Published 23 days ago by Laurie Q
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
I do like the story but a little disappointed, not the type of book I expected from the author.
Published 27 days ago by Louise Perri
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
started good but her character became very unbelievable & it rambled...couldn't finish it
Published 28 days ago by Marvis L. Olson
4.0 out of 5 stars Captivating!
One of the best books. Ineresting to be taken around the 17th and 18th centuries and live with the characters.
Published 28 days ago by Abboud Denise
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
It is an interesting book but I found it a trifle long winded
Published 1 month ago by DOROTHY CARMICHAEL
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Riveting book. Couldn't put it down
Published 1 month ago by Carolyn Vroom
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Intregueing characters set in a long ago time of scientific discoveries.Hard to put down once you start reading.
Published 1 month ago by Linda Lee McCannell
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Published 1 month ago by Sandra Ott
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great, sprawling book, evocative and fun: sates the soul!
Published 1 month ago by janet
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