Forget whatever you knew about Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love) and prepare to fall in love with this unlikely novel about a nineteenth century scholar of mosses, Alma Whittaker, and her strange, compelling, complex life.
Born into privilege in a great house on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Alma is brilliant, tall and plain-featured. Raised to be industrious by her no-nonsense Dutch mother, and in thrall to her rough-and-tumble father (who sailed with Captain Cook and made his fortune in trading in exotic plants from the expanding globe), Alma speaks five languages, studies plants, and wants nothing more from life than to study (at first).
Into her intensely bookish and quiet life come a series of others: a same-age sister, adopted at the age of 8; a book publisher; an orchid illustrator. After years hardly leaving her all-absorbing home, she sets out for the South Seas.
It sounds like the most static, boring novel of all time, but The Signature of All Things is on the same level as the novels of Hilary Mantel. It’s filled with thrills—the setting, the language, and the story of Alma, whose adventures of the mind, soul and body are haunting, funny, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, uplifting, engaging. An amazing book, and highly recommended.