Alma Whittaker is born on the first year of a new century, January 5, 1800, but her story begins before her conception. Her father, Henry Whittaker, survived a poverty-stricken childhood near London, where he lived in a hut with an earthen floor and was not always fed. However, his upbringing gave him something that would someday make him incredibly wealthy: an understanding and a gift for horticulture. Henry's father tended the orchards at Kew Gardens and bequeathed to his youngest son a love for trees. Henry was also intelligent enough to know that he could only raise his stature through knowledge, so he learned everything he could about the one avenue of scholarship available to him. He became a tree wizard. Yet he watched the wealthy with avidly envious eyes and yearned to become rich.
"THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a magnificent literary triumph that surely will be long heralded as an enduring classic. But more than that, it's an absorbing, satisfying page-turner of a read."
Kew Gardens held thousands of specimens of plants, including exotic rare varieties acquired by Sir Joseph Banks, the ambitious superintendent. Henry admired Banks, who was a handsome and aggressive explorer --- the extreme opposite of Henry's modest father. Admiring Banks did not keep Henry from robbing him; Henry built up quite a business stealing seeds and cuttings, which he sold to collectors all over the world. Eventually, though, he was caught and threatened with death. Yet Banks admired the way Henry had acted on his ambitions and hired him to embark on a voyage with Captain Cook.
Henry's years of adventuring and traveling to various ports eventually paid off when he discovered a type of tree in Peru with the power to cure malaria. He also had a plan for a plantation of these trees that would eventually pay off in an enormous way, but when Banks pooh-poohed the notion, Henry sold his ideas and plant starts to the Dutch East India Company. This was the first step to building a huge fortune and maintaining a mansion in Philadelphia with the Dutch wife he acquired along the way.
Now his wife, Beatrix, has finally given him a daughter. Alma's life is filled with luxury, but even more so, it is filled with intellectual encouragement and the time to explore the acres her family owns. Both parents are geniuses at botany, and Alma absorbs plant and science knowledge, eventually settling on a long-lasting deep study of mosses. The years pass. Henry and Beatrix adopt a beautiful daughter, Prudence. Alma, in contrast to her adopted sister, is large and homely, which adds complications when she develops sensual yearnings and falls in love. Readers experience her life's valleys, mountains and unexpected side road meanderings in the same way Alma studies her mosses: detail by exquisite detail.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a magnificent literary triumph that surely will be long heralded as an enduring classic. But more than that, it's an absorbing, satisfying page-turner of a read. That the pace is unhurried only adds layers to the fascinating depths of Alma's life story. This is not a book to skim or read rapidly; I found myself rereading passages to admire the elegant phrasing. I also marveled frequently at the extent of author Elizabeth Gilbert's research, as well as her versatility (after penning her bestselling --- but oh so different --- memoir, EAT, PRAY, LOVE). As a side note, the book is a joy to hold and look at, with its heavy-papered, deckle-edged pages and gloriously illustrated end pages.
This marvelous piece of historical fiction is a volume to be cherished, kept and reread.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 4, 2013