The Signature of All Things

Lots of people make fun of Eat, Pray, Love. Of the overly earnest writing, of the privilege of a rich white woman writing about solving her problems by taking a year-long trip around the world, of the (admittedly terrible) Julia Roberts movie version. But you know what? I like Eat, Pray, Love! I have read it more than once! And I love Elizabeth Gilbert, who in interviews always seems fun and realistic about her crazy self-help book success. Also, her TED talk is pretty amazing. But I admit that I was a little wary of her latest book, a novel about a female scientist in 19th century America. Gilbert’s voice is so distinctive, and in her non-fiction novels is so specific to her experiences, that I was not sure how that might work in a period fiction piece. But The Signature of All Things worked for me.

It’s a long, sweeping book that tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a Philadelphia heiress in the early 1800s who bucks convention by not marrying and focusing instead on her study of mosses. The books her life from the day she’s born (and actually starts off with a really lengthy but about her father, explaining how the Whittakers got to Philadelphia), but most of the big action in the book takes place when Alma is in her fifties and her previously predictable life suddenly sends her in new directions (literally). A woman studying moss doesn’t sounds like a rip-roaring story, but Alma’s story takes all sorts of turns and did not end up anywhere I expected.

The story itself is interesting and twisty and detailed, and Gilbert clearly did lots of research on the time period and the science involved. But my favorite thing about it was the voice–it sounds like Elizabeth Gilbert. If you’ve read her non-fiction, you’ll know that she’s funny and a little irreverent, and all of that is right there in The Signature of All Things. The book reads like a period piece with characters that seem of the time, but there is still this slightly wry undercurrent the peeks out. I recently read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, another piece of historical fiction that has gotten rave reviews. I didn’t write about here because it felt like a slog and I couldn’t quite articulate why, but reading The Signature of All Things helped me make sense of it. The Luminaries felt very straightforward, as if it could have been written in 1800, and it didn’t have that sense of humor running through it. That irreverence that Elizabeth Gilbert brings made all the difference for me and kept me hooked through Alma’s whole, incredible story.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Chewy, three-dimensional tale

You might also like: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, which is historical fiction about a female scientist (although it is based on a real person) or State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, about a modern day woman consumed in her scientific work.