The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert


A book that includes historical figures of interest among the characters, has a gripping, multi-generational plot, and that engenders interest in scientific topics you didn't know you could enjoy is a terrific book.

It begins with the fictional Henry Whitaker whose father was a lowly but talented gardener for Joseph Banks as he was collecting plants for Kew Botanic Garden. Henry was secretly propagating those rare plants  and selling them throughout Europe. When he was caught, Banks sent him off to join the third voyage of Captain Cook to bring Banks new specimens. The thief was dismissed by Banks when he returned years later prepared to make Banks even more wealthy.  Whitaker took his treasure of medicinal plants to America and became the richest man in Philadelphia. All of this wonderful bit came before the main character was born.

Alma Whitaker, daughter of Henry and his upstanding Dutch wife, was born in 1800. Her parents set about making her a knowledgable botanist as they both were. An adopted sister came into the family who worked with great difficulty to come close to Alma's achievements. Alma was expected to converse with the men from all over the world who came to their dinner table; she looked like her ungainly father and had his determination and the effrontery to say what she thought. Her mother scolded Alma if she was inattentive and her sister Prudence for being shy.

During their teenage years a neighbor girl their own age comes into the picture, the lovable air-headed Retta who brings laughter into their lives. Even the severe mother is unable to resist Retta. An intelligent young publisher of scientific works and a cheerless highly moral tutor make up the world of the younger set. Alma learns much later the truth of the unfortunate marriages that occur in this little group. At 48 marriage looks unlikely for Alma until a brilliant orchid illustrator named Ambrose Pike arrives on the scene. Their brief marriage ends as they had miscommunicated their goals for marriage, having tried to make this communication without words.

Alma's joy in life before Ambrose and after that storm has passed, is studying moss. Given the breadth of her knowledge, she saw in the moss garden a much bigger idea, the transmutation of species. This is the term used for the 19th century ideas that preceded Darwin's theory of evolution in works of those such as Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Alma was familiar with his work and his thesis that "every species on earth had transformed since its original creation because of an interior sentiment within the organism which longed to perfect itself." Much later in this book Alma herself writes a 40-page treatise on the subject of evolution based on her observation of mosses. She was never willing to publish it because she believed that in the case of humans the theory could not account for altruistic behavior. She was overjoyed at Darwin's book as it explicated the very theory she believed and coped with problem of altruism by not addressing it.

Alma ended her marriage by having her husband sent to Tahiti to oversee the family plantation there. After her father's death Alma learned the sad truth of the marriages of her sister and friend Retta and she turned over her father's estate to her sister to create an orphanage for black children. She went to Tahiti to learn about the life and death of her husband. There she meets wildly dramatic people including the one-time missionary who sees no harm in all the Tahitian practices involving their gods and the wildly successful Tahitian man who became a missionary and was god-like to his people. She made her way to Holland to the home of her mother's brother who oversees a great horticultural garden and she found a place in that family that allowed her to work and enjoy family life.

Though the plot is gripping and successful because of the characters, Alma refers to several of them as the embodiment of aspects of evolution. The problem of altruism is referred to as the "Prudence problem," for example. The scientist Alma loves Ambrose who strives for a perfect mystical union with little regard for the physical and therein we have the 19th century preference for the measurable scientific fact over religion.  Though this shows shameful disrespect for a character, still I loved the plot of this book and its characters.

The title is the same as the major work of a Christian mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) who believed that God put clues to the importance of each plant within the plant itself. You can tell that walnuts are good for headaches because they are shaped like brains and a plant that only grows in ice cold water is good for hypothermia. 

I was wildly enthusiastic about listening to this book all the way through. It was beautifully written and the breadth of knowledge was amazing and always enlightening.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things, Viking, 2013, 501 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public library and through Amazon.

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