The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 2013, 499 pp
Oh my. I loved this book. I didn't want it to end. I wish I was still reading it. Let me see if I can stop gushing and say something intelligent about why I loved it so much.
First of all, Alma Whittaker, so flawed a character yet so brave and in the end so wise. I suppose not all readers will feel that way, especially female readers. I admired her and suffered with her. Of course, I recognized that Gilbert put a good deal of herself into Alma but found nothing wrong with that.
As a piece of historical fiction, the book excels in terms of evoking the times without showing off the research. I am a gardener and the daughter of gardeners so I was captivated by all the botany stuff.
Finally, Gilbert writes in this novel with such balance between the plot and her empathy for her exotic characters. She has got the controlled abandon of Neal Stephenson, the wit of A M Homes, but is fully herself. She kept upending my expectations as to where the story was going in such a brilliant way that I was willing to follow wherever she took me.
Alma, who put almost all of her mind and energies into science, who used her studies and experiments in botany to make sense of the world, eventually arrived at a theory similar to Darwin's. She had published other books and plenty of articles in scientific journals but put off publishing her theory because she had an unanswered question about life, an anomaly that did not fit. Then Darwin's book came out, he acquired fame and credit for the theory of evolution.
By this time Alma was elderly and I loved most of all the insight and light-handed approach Gilbert took with this final disappointment in Alma's life. Between the lines of these final chapters, much gets said about science, truth, men, women, fame, and integrity.
(The Signature of All Things is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)