Known for her bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love that sent women travelling the globe to find inner peace and left partners and husbands flailing in disbelief, Gilbert has been less known for her literary talent and more known for her subject matter. Although her previously published books garnered a raft of awards including the Pushcart prize, a nomination for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award, it was her philosophy and life exploration in Eat, Pray, Love that gripped women around the world. Published in 2006, it was adapted for the screen in 2010, starring Julia Roberts.
Such a bestselling novel can be a burden for a literary talent; bestsellers pay well, but rarely achieve literary status by awarding their author sought after prizes. In The Signature of All Things Gilbert has penned a clear literary winner. There are similarities to her previous bestselling novel. In both cases her female protagonists shows themselves to have strength of character. Similarly Gilbert has not left behind her notorious ode to female independence; it skips off every page of her latest novel and makes the reader warm to her academic, but lacklustre heroine, Alma.
Gilbertís sweeping tale traverses the globe from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. In 1800 Alma is born in Philadelphia to a Dutch mother and American father. Her mother, Beatrix, is aloof and her father, Henry Whittaker; a much revered botanical explorer, is consumed by his work. He has during the course of his career acquired a large fortune for his family to benefit from.
Alma, who it is clear is no beauty, immerses herself in studies, learning several languages as well as keeping abreast of her fatherís botanical work. Adored by her father, Alma is determined to please him by acquainting herself with as much knowledge as possible. She has no social interaction with young girls her own age. Her childhood is full of adult conversation around the dinner table with her fatherís fellow explorers. Almaís interest in botany and the world around her is piqued at an early age.
Almaís questioning nature leads her to always look for rational thought. Answers to her questions are found in books, not people. But life throws two damaged characters her way, both of whom she loves. First a friend, Retta Snow, who is unhinged by life and then Ambrose Pike, a man who takes guidance from dreams and spiritual faith. Desperate to understand the less tangible quirks of human nature Alma embarks on a journey of discovery. She meets missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, those who have found contentment and those who remain lost. She is determined to make sense of life.
The Signature of All Things is a tome to the beauty of the environment around us, an environment steeped in history. As the natural habitat is explored so is the complex nature of individual beings. Gilbertís novel will keep you thinking long after you have turned the final page.
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