It’s a rare author that can make the transition successfully from fiction to non-fiction or vice versa. The non-authors among us (like me) might think that a wordsmith is a wordsmith, but I have a truly awful almost finished novel in my closet that speaks to my abilities in non-fiction failing to make the jump to to fiction. Ann Patchett can do it (though I prefer her fiction). Will Ferguson did it. I’m sure there are others, but I still didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up The Signature of All Things. I had enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing in Eat Pray Love and Committed, but I had no idea if I would like her as a novelist.
The books starts fairly slowly, setting up the story with Henry Whittaker adventures traveling the world as a botanist. He becomes rich in pharmaceuticals, marries a Dutch woman, and settles on an estate in Philadelphia. It is his daughter, Alma, who is the main character of the book, though he remains a force throughout the book. The 1800s aren’t really ready for a woman like Alma – smart, opinionated, outspoken, and unwilling to settle for the expected quiet married life. Instead, Alma becomes a botanist and eventually travels the world like her father.
The plot itself doesn’t capture all of the book – Alma’s need for a companion, but inability to accept what’s on offer in the era, the changing world of the 1800s, botany itself. Gilbert is a beautiful writer and the strength of this novel is in observing her writing.
As a woman who is a Myers Brigg INTJ (which I would guess I would share with Alma), I found her story intriguing, as the prospects for smart, logical woman who are unwilling to compromise hasn’t changed as significantly as one might hope.
At 500 pages, this is quite an epic novel and it does drag in parts. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book.