Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel in twelve years is an extraordinary story of botany, exploration and desire, spanning across much of the 19th century. This audiobook follows the fortunes of the brilliant Alma Whittaker (daughter of a bold and charismatic botanical explorer) as she comes into her own within the world of plants and science. As Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she loves draws her in the opposite direction into the realm of the spiritual, the divine and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose is a Utopian artist. But what unites this couple is a shared passion for knowing, a desperate need to understand the workings of this world, and the mechanism behind of all life. The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, this story soars across the globe, from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam and beyond. It is told in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time. Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself. She stands on the cusp of the modern, with one foot still in the Enlightened Age, and she is certain to be loved by listeners across the world.
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Sensitively written but ultimately dull
This isn't badly written. it gives a sensitive portrait of the heroine's life and describes her world - 19th century botany, competently. Unfortunately, after the interesting beginning, I found it dull and, as it proceeded, more dull until I stopped reading just over half way through. It contains little dialogue to enliven it and what dialogue it does contain is in a ponderous style which is anything but enlivening. Maybe people did have dull lives and talk ponderously in the 19th century but the great 19th century novelists managed to make them interesting.
It gives a strong perspective of the problems of a woman suffering from the combination of emotional deprivation and intellectual brilliance. I like that combination. The book also has a mystical angle which may suit some readers more than others. The title is a reference to a real mystical book which can be bought on Amazon.
The theme of the emotionally deprived woman scientist is dealt with much more richly in a couple of other novels I have read. These are The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Both are delightfully multilayered as well as entertaining.