What a great title for a book. In the spiritual tradition of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert continues her literary search for meaning in The Signature of All Things, a historical novel about the Whittacres, a fictional family of botanists who emigrate from England’s Kew Gardens area to Philadelphia in the early 19th century. And, as readers seeking a good story, we happily tag along with her.
Though far from a ‘grabs-you-by-the-seat-of-the-pants’ novel, The Signature of All Things is a thoughtful and worthwhile read. The story begins with family patriarch Henry Whittacre, whose humble beginnings belie his remarkable quest for knowledge about earth’s flora, leading him to a life of adventure, discovery, and, ultimately, great wealth. The main focus of the story, however, is his intellectually arduous daughter, Alma, who eventually enters the rarified circle of naturalist Charles Darwin.
But The Signature of All Things is more than a good story about the inception of natural selection. It’s also a philosophical quest into the value of an individual’s life. And that’s what distinguishes it from other historical novels about interesting albeit arcane subjects. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett’s The State of Wonder, Gilbert’s novel presents the myriad species of moss as a compelling example of evolution at work, then invites us into the mind of a brilliant botanist who seeks to understand not only the natural world, but the spiritual as well.