The Signature of all things
is all about plants
From Gilbert’s website, the tag line for the book is:
“A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge.”
Sounds about right.
The book spans the fictional life of Alma Whittaker. Alma was born in the 1800’s to one of the wealthiest families in Philadelphia. Growing up surrounded by her family’s expansive estate, Alma becomes fascinated with botany. This is not surprising as her father, Henry Whittaker, made his fortune from collecting rare orchids and plants and then selling them.
The 1800’s is the century when people first thought to look for life’s explanations in the natural world. It is the time that Darwin came out with his “Origin of the Species.” It was a time of exploration of far-off continents and the opportunity to collect rare plants.
Alma’s father made his fortune stealing plants from Kew Gardens in London, England where he worked. He then sold the exotic plants to collectors. After being caught stealing, Alma’s father is sent off to voyage with Captain Cook as punishment.
He eventually ended up in Philadelphia, where he becomes enormously wealthy by selling plants that he collected on his voyage with Captain Cook.
Alma and plants
As a child, Alma is clever, sharp, but not pretty. She devours books and becomes an excellent conversationalist. She yearns for friendship and love. Her sister, Prudence, is beautiful and quiet. All men coming into the household are captivated by Prudence.
Gilbert beautifully describes Alma’s frustration in an age when women were not permitted to admit of any kind of sexual need.
In place of romantic fulfillment, Alma’s special passion is mosses. Mosses’ primitive bodies, interesting habits, and peculiar reproductive modes fascinate her. She spends years marking the boundaries of mosses competing for territory. Eventually Alma writes an unpublished scientific paper that, unbeknownst to her, reaches the same conclusions that Darwin reached.
Alma is portrayed as an enlightened woman. However, as her intellectual knowledge increases, so too does her emotional longing.
When Ambrose Pike, a gifted lithographer who makes glorious pictures of orchids, comes to live at the Whittaker estate, Alma falls in love. Unfortunately, the relationship does not end in the way Alma was hoping.
When Alma’s father dies, she inherits his money and library. Alma sets out on an epic journey of discovery to examine the flora of Tahiti.
And as much as Alma wants to understand the outer world, she seeks clarity over her inner contradictions.
I recommend it.
My love of plants had me pick up this book. The writing is so believable, it pulled me in, and I found myself engrossed in this story with all its twists and turns in the lives of the characters.
I think you will enjoy it. I know I did.