The Signature of All Things – by Elizabeth Gilbert – the second in an occasional series for the beautiful Islington Hotel, Hobart.
“From 19th century America to Tahiti and Europe, this is a novel of science and sensuality, intellect and exploration. It has all the grit and colour of Dickens, but the quiet control and social wisdom of George Eliot.”
Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for that bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love. But The Signature of All Things is a return to fiction for Gilbert – the first time in 12 years – and her ease with the form of the novel shows. This is an exquisite story so vivid and vibrant in its characters and plot that it does that wonderful thing very good novels do – it carried me away entirely.
The novel begins in Dickensian fashion with: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.” Alma Whittaker grows up in the midst of extraordinary wealth created by her maverick father through the legal and illegal procurement of rare plants from across the world.
The opening chapters relate her father’s extraordinary life “while we wait for the young girl to grow up…”. These include one of the most wonderful evocations of Cook’s third voyage that it should be required reading for all Australians.
And so young Alma does grow up. On the extensive estate of White Acre, with its gardens and hothouses, Alma finds herself drawn to the infinite wonder of botany. This will lead to a lifetime of enquiry and pursuit – and what a lifetime it is!
Alma is neither beautiful nor petite (always something of a relief in literature) and so her love life is fraught with significant challenges. Her true exploration is both physical and intellectual. Through her fascination with mosses, she develops a pioneering theory on transmutation, paralleling that of Darwin and his younger colleague Alfred Russell Wallace.
From 19th century America to Tahiti and Europe, this is a novel of science and sensuality, intellect and exploration. It has all the grit and colour of Dickens, but the quiet control and social wisdom of George Eliot.
Gilbert researched the novel painstakingly – using 19th century letters to inform the voice and vocabulary of the novel (Walt Whitman’s letters and Captain Cook’s journals were of particular interest.) Every page is imbued with a reverence for nature, science and exploration. And yet this is a novel of pace and great humour. I so loved Alma, and believed in her so entirely, that at one point I googled her to ensure she really wasn’t a person I had missed in history. No, she wasn’t. She, and her marvellous adventures through a century of human evolution, are completely the product of Gilbert’s rich and exciting imagination.
The Signature of All Things is an epic and satisfying journey of some 500 pages. It is a beautiful book to read, and equally to listen to. The audio book (via Audible.com) has the unsurpassed Juliet Stevenson as narrator. Enjoy!
PS. The Islington is Hobart’s (and one of Australia’s) most beautiful and elegant places to stay. Perfect for couples wanting the ultimate retreat. For more about the luxurious accommodation at The Islington visit: www.islingtonhotel.com
And for the most beautiful place for groups to stay in Hobart (especially those who love to read) discover our own Library House – www.libraryhouse.com.au