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Friday, January 17, 2014

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Book Review: The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is not an easy read. It is slow and rambling, depressing and difficult. With endless references to science, facts, and people that a liberal arts education does not provide knowledge of, it's a challenge. 

But if you're willing to put in the work, you will read a beautifully written and honest book that takes a look at life through a pair of brilliant eyes.
This piece of historical fiction is set in the 1800s when Alma Whittaker is born. Alma, the daughter of Henry Whittaker, a stubborn outspoken but extremely wealthy botanist, inherits her fathers brains and unfortunately his looks. As she grows so does her knowledge of the world around her. Following in the family's tradition, she too becomes a botanist, studying plants imported from all over the world. But as interesting and comforting as her plants are, Alma wants more. She longs for love, marriage, and sex, but because of her less than attractive features and her father's ever-oppressive need for help, it always seems just out of reach. Even when love finds her, it is not what she dreamed. Her thirst for love and understanding drives her all over the world. Her painful and earnest story of human love is all intertwined with her love of plants. 
All of this plays over the backdrop of the scientific world hurtling towards the discovery of evolution making The Signature of All Things historical fiction for the historical fiction lover.

It is a simple book that is simply Alma's life. Her hopes, fears, triumphs, and failures. It is human life at it's most honest. And it's most beautiful. Gilbert does such a superb job letting us see life through Alma's eyes that we truly see and feel how Alma does. At a certain point in her life, Alma decides to become an expert on moss. She becomes so excited and learns so much about such a seemingly mundane thing, that the reader can no longer see moss as mundane any longer. I went on a camping trip not long after finishing this book and felt a little bit of Alma's excitement when I saw a moss covered bolder in the forest.
I wasn't kidding, guys. I got so excited about moss on a bolder that I had to take a picture of it. Thanks, Alma.
But this book is not boring no matter how the subject matter may seem. You learn so much, especially if you don't know much about botany, and you learn it in a fun way. It's not a text book. But it is very witty, sarcastic, and self-aware. I knew I was going to enjoy it when within the first chapter Alma is born but Gilbert tells us (in much more elegant words)...She's just a baby, and babies are pretty boring, so let's read about something more interesting until she grows up a bit. That pretty much sets the stage for the tone of the writing.

Even though I found The Signature of All Things difficult at times, I also found it calming and reassuring. Even when what Alma wants most doesn't work out the way she wants it to, she still keeps living. Life goes on and Alma goes on with it, just as every human being must. Elizabeth Gilbert truly captures life and the human condition in it's truest form.
Those who survived the world shaped it- even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them.
 Have you read The Signature of All Things? What did you think?

Title: The Signature of All Things

Author:  Elizabeth Gilbert

Genre: Historical Fiction

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Mature and Well-read Male and Female readers

Final Rating: Four out of Five mugs of hot chocolate
Want to earn an honorary degree in bryology (the study of mosses)?! Use the link below and your purchase will also support the Lone Book Club!

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