Alma Whittaker is born in the very first year of the nineteenth century, a time of great change as the world opens up and scientific discoveries abound. Growing up in a family that encourages her to have an open mind and better herself through intellectual development, Alma devotes herself to botany and the study of mosses. However, she is unprepared for society in general and her personal life suffers through comparison with her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence. A panoramic of Alma's life and the nineteenth century in general, A Signature of All Things examines the difference between intellectual and personal fulfilment, and the contrasting roles of science and spirituality.
The Signature of All Things is a very difficult book to summarise as it's an ambitious, epic book. Alma may be the centrepiece and the main story-teller, but the book is about big topics such as science, spirituality, marriage, missionaries, the abolition of slavery, the discovery of evolution and the role of women. Gilbert has certainly aimed high, and for the most part the novel is very successful. None of the themes felt rammed down my throat at any point, and the panoramic view of Alma's times reminded me a bit of Dickens. Gilbert does a great job at conjuring up the ethos and atmosphere of the times, when botany was truly an exciting career and it felt as though scientists were uncovering the mysteries of God.
Although Alma is an interesting and easy to relate to main character, I found myself most drawn to the story of her adopted sister, Prudence. Despite being very intelligent herself, she isn't quite in Alma's league and so suffers in a different way to Alma. I enjoyed reading about her becoming drawn to the abolitionist movement, and the waves in society she was prepared to make for her beliefs. In a similar vein, I enjoyed the latter sections of the novel, when Alma journeyed to Tahiti and came into contact with a different way of life to her own. I love that whole nineteenth century explorer theme in historical fiction, and the meeting of different cultures.
On the whole, I really enjoyed The Signature of All Things. It was one of the titles I was most excited to read from the Baileys long-list, as the theme of women scientists was always going to draw to me. However, it's a hard book to review as I could pretty much sum up my views by simply typing "I liked this book." There was nothing I disliked about it, but neither did it grab me and worm it's way into my heart as a favourite. It's simply a very well written story about a topic that engages me, and I'm glad I spent several nights with it over the last week.
First Published: 2013
Score: 4 out of 5
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier - Another historical novel about a woman fossil hunter, Mary Anning. I loved the exploration of the roles of religion and science in this one.