I have wanted to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013) for a while. I planned to read it last summer, but my interest faltered and I read other books instead. My studies started again in September and with it, I read books assigned to me for school and other books that I thought I was more interested in. I completely forgot about Gilbert’s book.
A few weeks ago, I was going through one of my parents’ bookcases, looking for something to read – that’s when I stumbled upon The Signature of All Things for a second time, and remembered the urge with which my mom had told me to read it last summer. I decided that I would start reading it now.
I read the synopsis and started to read the novel, when I realized that the novel was about… botany. Yes, plants. I was worried for a second, because, let’s just say that plants don’t really interest me that much. I like the idea of growing them, but not necessarily reading about them. That’s what I thought, anyway.
I finished the almost 500-page novel in about four days – that’s how good it was. The story is also a very heavy, challenging one, in the sense that it deals with a woman’s entire life.
The novel starts off with a brief story of the woman’s dad, Henry Whittaker. We learn about the way he went from rags to riches and his boat duties around the world. This is where I got the sense that despite the novel being about plants, it was definitely going to be interesting.
Chapter one opens with the birth of Alma Whittaker, the book’s main character. It is instantly very obvious that she’s a sharp cookie. She is encouraged by both her parents to go out in nature and study plants. She even has her own scientific kit.
This is where I should state the fact that the book is set in the eighteen hundreds. Alma Whittaker is born in 1800, “with the century” as Gilbert wrote in the novel.
While many events occur in the novel, twists and turns, one aspect of the story is constant: the theme of female strength, both physical and mental.
Exhibit A: Alma Whittaker herself. Not only is she described as being physically sturdy, broad-shouldered and tough, she is also extremely intelligent, inquisitive and stubborn, three character traits that were not necessarily applauded or encouraged in young women in the nineteenth century. We read about the scientific conversations she has with many people, none of whom are of her own age. She is only a child when she talks with old, white-haired men about science. Her scientific conclusions often surprise the men, some of whom are surprised to see Alma and her mother sitting at the dinner table with the men.
Exhibit B: Alma’s mother, Beatrix Whittaker. She’s also described as having a strong physicality, and unlike most descriptions of nineteenth century mothers in literature, she is described as being very independent, intelligent and has a strong sense of who she wants her daughter to be. She starts teaching her daughter everything she knows from a very young age, and she is extremely knowledgeable. Alma, with her native language of English, is taught Greek, Latin, Dutch (Beatrix’s native language) and French by her mother. Later, when she becomes a teenager, Alma will have a tutor, but up to that point, her mother teaches her everything.
Exhibit C: Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence. While she is not described as being physically strong or broad as are described Alma and Beatrix, Prudence’s strength is made evident throughout the whole story. Whereas she is always silent with the guests at the dinner table, when one particularly misogynistic and racist male guest starts implying that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people and therefore inferior to them, Prudence comes alive and totally destroys the man’s terrible “logic” with strong rhetoric and arguments. From then on, Prudence becomes an abolitionist with untraditional ways.
There are so many examples of strong women in the book, but I would have to write five more blog posts to summarize them all. I don’t even know if what I wrote so far does justice to the novel, because it is so intricate and expertly researched. Multiple other themes are present in the novel, such as intellect, curiosity, the battle of science vs. faith and religion, learning at every age, shame and also the reason why people are the way they are.
There’s also, toward the end of the novel, an excellent scientific revolution aspect that made me think about the fact that Alma Whittaker’s story could fit in the history that we know of. She obviously is a fictional character, but, and I won’t spoil it, what happens with Charles Darwin makes her story that much more plausible.
I think of this book now as a true masterpiece that not only gave me knowledge about plants, but also gave me a better appreciation of plants as a whole. Gilbert’s work is sweeping and flawless.
Here’s a lesson that I took away from this gorgeous novel: it’s never too late to learn or do something new.