Books, Doctor Who, Gilbert

Book Review – The Signature of All Things

Wow.  Just.  WOW.  I have just this instant finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I admit I was skeptical starting this book, and had it not been for the suggestion of a good friend and like-minded bibliophile, I might have never given it a second glance.  But, now, as I sit here, tears streaming down my face, merely because the book ended, I am so very glad I did.  Clocking in right at 500 pages (499, to be exact, not counting the acknowledgements page, which I never read anyway, unless it’s John Green, because he’s just humorous), I finished this book in the span of about 12 hours.  I actually woke sick today – bad tummy – and so was left with little to do, except finish this book I had started on Sunday.  But enough, about the mechanics of my reading and bad tummy.

The book is (I actually hate this term, it makes me think of either Barney from How I Met Your Mother or John Jakes), but the book truly is epic.  It begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor young English boy, whose father is the “Apple Magnus” at Kew Gardens.  Henry, clever and aspiring, quickly learns how to bullshit his way into a living, and soon becomes a well-known, wealthy botanist.  Henry marries a Dutch woman, Beatrix, they move to Philadelphia, where he builds the grandest mansion in the city.  The couple have one child, Alma, who is precocious and sadly, unattractive.  At this point, the story shifts from a Henry-centric tale to an Alma-centric one.  For several years, she is the center of attention, until an unexpected arrival occurs in the middle of the night.  This marks a turning point in Alma’s life and the introduction of a central figure in her life.  Life plods along, with Alma foraging deeper into botany (ha, I think that was funny), until a strange young lady named Retta Snow arrives at the White Acres estate.  — Sidebar: This is why I categorized this as “Doctor Who,” because yes, even when I am reading something that seemingly has NO connection whatsoever to Doctor Who, I find one.  I am going to insert a quote from the book here, and for my fellow Doctor Who lovers, I wonder if you will see Clara/Oswin as clearly as I did?  End sidebar.  —  “As she strolled the garden, the girl carelessly swung a green-trimmed, tasseled parasol.  It was difficult to be certain, but the girl seemed to be talking to herself.  Alma put down Mr. Lamarck and watched.  The stranger was not in any hurry, and indeed, she eventually found a bench to sit upon, and then – more curious still – to lie upon, flat on her back.”  Such an enchanting entrance to such an enchanting character who changes young Alma’s life.  The fact that I could flip right to that page speaks volumes.

Alma grows older, as we all do, and continues to study botany. She also discovers erotica, quite accidentally, in trunks of books her father acquires from families who are falling upon hard times.  These books leave a different sort of mark upon Alma, and she feels herself blossoming out of her cocoon.

Alma suffers tragedy, experiences adventures, and lives her life to the fullest in this grand work.  I can honestly say it has been quite some time that a novel has captured me, held onto me, and refused to let me go.  As I was sitting here crying (once I softly, reverently closed the book), my youngest daughter asked me if I was okay.  I was actually incapable of comprehensible speech for a few minutes, and all attempts to explain why I was crying, just caused me to cry harder.  The characters are so real, the history so intricately woven into their lives, that you almost feel as if you are Alma, reading Malthus’ theory about overpopulation for the first time.  You exalt when she reads of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.  You can almost hear the oceans and smell the mosses.  This book is so beautifully written.  Not only is it historical, it is magical, and in their own way, the characters remind me of other characters from other great novels:  Alma, although no Southern belle, actually reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara; Retta, Lydia or Kitty from Pride and Prejudice; Hanneke, a Dutch Mammy.  The writing is reminiscence of Austen’s – the language flawless, yet antiquated.  I cannot, cannot urge you ENOUGH to pick up this book at once and read it.


Sigh.  Well, as much as I would like to re-read this one RIGHT THIS MINUTE, I believe I will move along to something else.  I’m thinking…hmm, NOT John Green, I have wept enough today.

>>>Insert subliminal message here:  Read this book, READ this book, READ THIS book!<<<


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