This is the story of a woman who dedicates her entire life to science and the study of moss colonies and arrives at some very important conclusions by the age of eighty. In “The Signature of All Things”, Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of the wealthiest family in Philadelphia, the Whittakers. The year is 1800 and Henry Whittaker's daughter, Alma, is about to be born. Henry owns a huge estate and he practically runs an empire. He is a passionate botanist and the most accomplished tradesman in the natural remedies business, even if he can barely read or write.
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The novel begins by telling us Henry's story. Henry descended from a very poor English family. His father was very passionate about plants and trees and he worked hard for the royal gardens in Kew, England. He was not an ambitious man so he remained poor for the rest of his life. Henry hated being poor so he decided to start making money on his own. He helped his father do his job in maintaining the royal gardens at Kew and he learned the true value of exotic plants. He decided to steal some rare seeds and sell them to the rich botanists of Europe. His father found out and he turned his son to the administrator, a smart, good looking and very wealthy botanist. Henry decided that he wanted to be like the wealthy administrator of the Kew gardens so he accepted to go in a couple of very dangerous expeditions around the world and learn all about natural remedies, exotic plants, rare orchids and especially quinine, a very important but extremely expensive cure for malaria.
Henry spends his youth travelling around the world and collecting plants. He survives the gruesome expeditions and he returns to England hoping to get some recognition for his work but he doesn't get any. He is still considered an illiterate, poor, young lad unworthy of the recognition of the prestigious high society of England. Henry decides to start doing business on his own and he succeeds. He gets wealthier and wealthier, he marries a Dutch woman and he moves to Philadelphia.
After a couple of miscarriages, Beatrix, Henry's wife gives birth to a healthy heiress for the Whittaker Empire. Alma grows under her mother's strict and rather cold supervision. Beatrix is a highly educated woman, and she comes from a large and important family of Dutch botanists. Alma grows up to be a little savant. She learns Greek and Latin, geometry and history, music and poetry but she likes botany like her mother and father. She collects plant samples and she observes them under her microscope, she draws them and she studies them and she has little to no contact with the outside world until one morning when her mother announces that she decided to adopt an orphan girl from the town.
Prudence, the new girl, is the daughter of a famous whore. One day, her father decided to slit her mother's throat because he was extremely jealous of her many affairs so Prudence became an orphan overnight. Alma is plain, very tall, and sturdy and by contrast, Prudence is very slim, blonde, blue eyed and extremely beautiful. Alma and Prudence keep their distance mostly because Alma is not used to talk to people of her own age. She is very eloquent and she can speak to the most learned minds of the day that her father invites for dinner but she is hopeless when it comes to making small talk.
Alma and Prudence grow up under the same roof but they are very different. One day, a girl named Retta manages to befriend both girls almost at once. She is an eccentric character, very capricious and she doesn't know anything about science. She is an expert at making small talk, she is childish and the whole family takes an instant liking of her.
Retta manages to marry Alma's secret love, a young, bright scientist named George Hawks and Alma gets very upset by the fact. Prudence and Retta get married at the same time and Alma remains alone to take care of the huge Whittaker estate and global business because Beatrix dies of breast cancer.
Prudence marries her old tutor, an abolitionist and a strange man named Alfred Dixon. Alma wonders for a while about her sister's choice in marriage but she is too busy studying plants and she forgets all about it. She starts studying moss colonies and she does that for the next twenty five years.
At this point we discover Alma as an old spinster. She is almost fifty years old. She runs the family business and she takes care of her aging father. She masturbates occasionally in her secret room and she keeps on writing books and studying her moss colonies.
One day, her old friend, long lost love and actual publisher, George Hawks, introduces her to a brilliant man named Ambrose Pike. Ambrose spent the last decade in the jungle and he can draw the most beautiful orchids. Ambrose and Alma take an instant liking of each other and he moves into the Whittaker house for a while. He is more interested in the spiritual realm and the magical rather than science and facts and he conducts a mind reading session that impresses Alma. They decide to get married. Alma and Ambrose get married but she is about to find out that her husband wants to be like the angels so he doesn't want to have sex at all. Alma is shocked and she decides to send Ambrose away, in Tahiti, to take care of a vanilla plantation.
Ambrose dies in Tahiti and Alma receives his old suitcase. In the suitcase she discovers hundreds of nude drawings of a local young man made by Ambrose and she understands that her husband was probably a homosexual. Alma finds out that George and Prudence were in love a long time ago but that Prudence gave up her love in the hope that George will take an interest and marry Alma. Henry dies and Alma decides to offer Prudence all the family fortune. She decides to take a trip to Tahiti and find out more about her lost husband.
Alma spends a year in Tahiti and she finds out that Ambrose was in fact not a homosexual. She meets Tomorrow Morning, the local man who managed to persuade Ambrose to have sex with him. She finds out that Ambrose killed himself because he was ashamed of losing his virginity and not remaining a pure, spiritual being.
Alma leaves Tahiti and she decides to visit her mother's part of the family in Amsterdam. Here, she develops the theory of evolution based on her lifelong observation of the moss colonies. She cannot be persuaded to publish her theory because she thinks that there are questions that she cannot answer about the evolution of species. Alma discovers that she, Charles Darwin and another scientist arrived at the same conclusions about the evolution but Darwin was the only one bold enough to publish his findings.
Alma dies in Amsterdam at the age of eighty.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story is long and sometimes it can be tedious but the end is worth the wait. I liked the story very much because in the end it showed me how much work, effort and sacrifice was necessary to arrive to the very important discoveries that we now take for granted.
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene where Alma discovered that her theory was accurate and that she was not the only one to have come to the right conclusions while studying her plants.
Opinion about the main character:
I didn't like the fact that Alma lived an isolated life and that she didn't take an interest in her sister's life. But, I guess that this is the price that a scientist and his family has to pay. It is very hard to maintain your focus on science and not get distracted by the trivialities of life.