The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My favorite book of 2013 -- a 5+! Thankfully, it arrived before the year ended. It's interesting that the last 5 I gave was to Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior which I read last year at about this time. Even weirder is that Barbara Kingsolver reviewed The Signature of All Things (Signature) for the New York Times and you might enjoy what she had to say:
I absolutely adored this book. I fell in love with the characters, with their minds, their successes and their tragedies. The book opens with the birth of protagonist Alma Whittaker on January 5, 1800 and uses her life events to track the scientific milestones of the 19th century. The story began 40 years earlier with the birth of Alma's father, Henry Whittaker, whose circumstances of birth couldn't have been more different from those of his daughter. But it is these circumstances that formed Henry, prompted his choice of wife (Beatrix) and ultimately became the critical nurture component that fostered Alma Whittaker. One of my favorite passages that helps us understand Alma's mother and offers a preview of what Alma is to become is, "She (Beatrix) prayed that her daughter would grow up to be healthy and sensible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly powdered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gaming tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to a savage Indian, or in any way whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family; namely, that she not grow up to be een onnozelaar, a simpleton." From this beginning, how could Alma grow into anything other than a scientist, even though the word did not yet exist at the time of her birth?
Gilbert creates characters who jump off the pages, grab you and don't let go. Other reviewers have noted their Dickensian qualities, citing names like Ambrose Pike, George Hawkes and Professor Peck. Gilbert uses their names, personalities and turns of speech to develop these entertaining, enthralling guides through this period before the Internet existed, when learning had to occur the painstaking way - by reading, discourse and travel. Imagine the advances Alma Whittaker could have achieved with the world wide web at her fingertips!
Alma's epiphany comes about 1/3 into the book when she decides to dedicate herself to the study of mosses. Gilbert uses this wonderful device to help frame the scientific advances of the century as well as to define Alma herself who has much in common with the substance, as told in these sentences: "In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive..... But here is what few people understood, and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries..... Moss grows where nothing else can grow." Simply substitute the name "Alma" for moss and you have a perfect description of our main character.
Is Signature without flaws? Of course not. Gilbert was chastised in one review for omitting large chunks of time when her character aged twenty-six years. As it stands, the book is just over 500 pages and covering each and every moment of Alma's life would have been entertaining but unnecessary. Yet, I would have welcomed another 500 pages!
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