Women, Families of Science: Review of The Signature of All Things




Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is a densely packed book of the then evolving science of botany in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading Signature was like taking a walk in the woods or in a botanical garden. Spanning the globe, from England to Holland to Peru to America to Tahiti and parts in between, a current of sensual, at times erotic, and longing, unfulfilled and/or frustrated desire and release flows, alternately competing with a river of stoicism, free spirits, and mysticism bordering on escapism.

A thief and pick pocket, entrepreneur in the making, finds his calling in the rare plant world. If you’re into collecting, substitute plants for whatever you collect and you get the picture. Henry Whittaker travels a relatively unexplored world aboard ships in search of unknown flora and fauna. Like Lila in V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, Henry realizes that he must make his destiny or else learn to live within someone else’s shadow, like his servant father. Henry, like Lila, also dreams of more than a hardscrabble life. It is in this vein that Henry sets out to light a fire under the crucible of botanical collecting and medicinal cures (think bark of trees that treats and cures malaria). As part of his plan, he seeks out and acquires a woman of substance, Beatrix to be his wife—she is Dutch—someone who would be his partner, someone he could depend on, turn over the minutiae of business over to, someone who relentlessly plodded forward, someone who shoved adversity and negativity in a ditch. Henry goes from rag to riches, settles in Philadelphia, and Beatrix gives birth to a bundle of science, Alma.

From there, Signature is the story of Alma’s life, from childhood to adulthood, in a family built upon learning, acquisition, and exploration. Alma has moments, sometimes periods, of happiness but her life is not overly happy, contented, or carefree. She embarks on a quest to understand everything, always with a question on her lips, and three others waiting in her mind. Alma is not a pretty thing; she is stout and homely—the pride of her father. Soon comes along another girl, Prudence who is destined to become Alma’s sister—adopted that is. Prudence is everything Alma is not; the girls are opposite sides of a coin. Put them together and you have perfection. Then comes a neighbor girl who unites the sisters, and that makes three. Others flow in and out of Alma’s life, all of them helping her to find another piece of the puzzle as she becomes the master of mosses, first in Philadelphia, then in Tahiti, and finally in her mother’s ancestral home, Amsterdam, where she lives until she dies. Alma’s life is of science, seeking to explain the life of a moss. Like other up and coming botanists and naturalists, she is a ground breaker and through her study of mosses finds that life is a process of continuous change—and then you die. It is what we do in the middle, how we change, that defines us as humans.

Similar Books:

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (medicinal cures found in the bark of trees, women of science)

Clive Cussler, Medusa (Captain Cook and islands)

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Language of Flowers (flowers and plant life)

Sue Monk Kidd, Invention of Wings (education of women)

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (education of women)

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (thief/pick pocket’s rags to riches quest)