The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Penguin Audio, 2013
21 hours and 44 minutes
source: review copy from publisher
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 18th and 19th 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 listeners.
If you're like me and found Eat, Pray, Love to be a whiny tale of self-indulgence, do yourself a favor and forget it. Please don't hold that memoir against Elizabeth Gilbert and her return to fiction because, if you do, you'll miss a very good book.
I was not planning to read The Signature of All Things, and to be honest, the description offered little incentive. It was only after noticing my audio review copy was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, that I decided to give it a try.
Other reviewers have referred to The Signature of All Things as Dickensian in scope and I certainly agree. The novel spans most of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the world, and offers up a host of characters, themes, and story lines. This sprawling novel tells the story of Alma's Whitaker's life and examines the development of her character from birth through old age. She is a remarkably intelligent, independent woman and it was a pleasure to observe her over her entire lifespan. The book is infused with plenty of science, especially botany and evolution. I did not expect to like this book, but ended up being enthralled.
I'm attributing much of my enjoyment to the audio production - Juliet Stevenson has been a favorite narrator for years. Often when I love listening to a book, it's hard to know whether I would have found it as engaging in print... but for the record, Jackie did.
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