“You loved a man who wished to see the stars by daylight…” (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Blackstone Audiobooks, October 2013
I listened to the audiobook version. The Hardcover edition is 512 pages.
What a gorgeous book. This truly beautiful piece of romantic historical fiction had me spellbound from start to finish and I’m genuinely sorry to have finished it. Whatever I listen to next is going to seem genuinely weak by contrast.
The Signature of All Things is a sweeping epic by the author of Eat, Pray Love that spans both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story tells the fortunes of the Whittaker family and its patriarch Henry- a self-made Englishman who makes his fortune in South America through trading tropical plants for medicinal purposes and later builds his own grand estate ‘White Acre’ in Philadelphia. Henry’s daughter Alma also later becomes a botanist of considerable repute, yet despite her brilliant scientific mind is seemingly lonely and longs for a partner who can understand not only her, but also the workings of the world.
This enthralling tale had a lot of interesting themes- science, faith, altruism, love, family and friendship. Having not read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ yet I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel at all, but the premise grabbed me and I’m so glad I chose to listen to it. At times happy, sometimes sad but always thought-provoking, this was a genuinely captivating, atmospheric story with some really sublime prose and vivid settings.
Character-wise, I really loved how Gilbert brought her creations so vividly to the fore. From the very start of the book I adored Henry Whittaker, a person who was very much larger than life and a stalwart protagonist throughout the majority of the plot. He was money-orientated, a self-made man who was not shy about voicing his opinions and this never changed. The actual story though, remains very much that of Alma’s- his daughter. We grow with her as she becomes a learned, capable young girl and eventually an independent woman with an intelligent mind and passionate heart. Despite this though and her longing for adventure and education in the field of botany and sciences, she remains very much loyal to her father and cannot leave their home, White Acre. Alma wants desperately to be loved and I truly, truly wanted her to have her own happy ending, though I feared this would never be the case. Alma is a woman who struggles to fit in with societal conventions of women at the time and undergoes a massive journey through the course of the story. She isn’t beautiful by her own admissions and her quick mind makes her very different to many other females who in the nineteenth century much preferred non-academic pursuits. Her brilliance certainly intimidates a lot of men. I enjoyed getting to know her and her relationship with her father was both fascinating and complex.
My two favourite characters in the book were actually the more secondary ones- I fell in love with the fantastically named Hanneke de Groot and the affable Retta Stone. Stoic nursemaid and Dutch housekeeper Hanneke is always there for the Whittaker family right from Alma’s birth and is the font of common-sense for her through most of her life, as well as offering some surprising revelations towards the middle of the book which set Alma on a very different path than anticipated. Retta appears when Alma is in her teens and is the first person to bring some fun and friendship into her otherwise dull, hardworking existence, as well as becoming a common ground between Alma and her adoptive sister Prudence. Later circumstances that befall Retta genuinely made me feel so sad as she was such a welcome beacon of light and humour within the storyline.
Some reviewers have commented on the dryness and longevity of the prose when the author elaborates on botanical descriptions and suchlike. Personally I loved these aspects of the novel; it added such authenticity and richness to the storyline and really made me feel like I was immersed in Alma and Henry’s world- a world very different to my own. I have to say though, that I didn’t particularly understand some of the trails of thought when it came to talking about moss and algae, but some other matters were thought-provoking, nonetheless. Alma Whittaker and her scientific knowledge and theories were very ahead of her time- as evidenced by later happenings in the novel.
This is one of the strongest audiobooks I have listened to- in part because of its epic story but also because of the glorious narration by the brilliant Juliet Stevenson. I had this on play every morning for almost four weeks- walking on the way to work or at the gym during my workouts. Towards the end of it I even listened to it at work, eager to know what would happen to Alma and how her story would finally conclude. At just over 22 hours long it was certainly worth the money and I think for me, was the kind of book that was better experiencing as an audiobook rather than in physical form as some of the descriptions may not have held my attention so much otherwise.
I’ve deducted half a star from my overall rating, merely as by contrast to the rest of the book, the ending did feel somewhat abrupt- though perhaps I was just sorry to have completed it and felt a bit bitter! Despite that, this is probably still going to be one of my favourite reads of 2014 and is an audiobook I wholeheartedly recommend.