Book Review – The Signature of All Things

Book Cover of The Signature of Small Things
Image credit Amazon Uk


I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s most popular book Eat, Pray and Love. I watched the movie first, and once I watch a movie, I don’t feel like reading the book. It ruins my imagination. Anyway, I loved the movie so much, that I thought if the movie was even 10% authentic, the book should be a marvel. And I picked up her first book that I came across – The Signature of Small Things. Though it was a huge 500-page book, the excerpt was interesting which made the decision for me.

Alma Whitaker is raised in 19th century Philadelphia in a world of luxury. Her curiosity and unquenchable thirst to explore the nature are fuelled by her father, a botanical explorer and mother, a botanist in her own right. Alma’s father encourages her to speak her mind, while her mother ingrains into her the values of a good human being. But, after all she is a human and there are times when she falls short.

Alma grows up into a practical woman who is neither blinded by the wealth around her, nor who shies away from the realities of life. She invests her time wisely into digging the mysteries of evolution. At the prime of her life, she encounters a man whom she finds both her equal and comes to love, but little does she know that her affection for him would draw her into the world of divinity and spiritualism.

Leaving behind all her worldly goods, she embarks on a momentous journey from Philadelphia to Tahiti and then to Amsterdam. She meets some wonderful people in Tahiti and also finds the truth for which she had undertaken the journey. She decides to visit Amsterdam, the land of her mother and settle there. Not to sit idle, she takes up work and makes a name for herself in the world of bryology.

The book started on an interesting note. It talks about the humble origins of Henry Whitaker (Alma’s father) and how he made his fortune and a name for himself as a botanist. Then the book focuses on Alma’s childhood, her adulthood and her marriage. The later part of the story focuses on Alma’s voyage to Tahiti, her discovery and her last years in Amsterdam.

The characters in the story are very well built; even the characters who played a small role are well defined and leave a lasting impression. For example, the unpredictable but ever bubbly Retta who ends up in an asylum, the beautiful but cold Prudence, who surprises everyone by marrying her tutor, Beatrice – the stern but practical mother of Alma, who doesn’t think twice before adopting Prudence, a maid’s daughter and treating her as the child of her womb or Hanneke de Groot, the handmaid who follows her mistress, Beatrice from Amsterdam to Philadelphia and runs the Whitaker household single-handedly.

However, for me, there are three heroes in the story. Alma Whitaker, Henry Whitaker and Ambrose. Alma is the protagonist, but she is not your regular spoilt rich kid. Even surrounded by wealth, her only passion is knowledge. However, she has her own faults. She is shown beseeched by jealousy when she finds Prudence in her home. She is upset when her friend Retta marries Georges, her first crush. She is overcome by anger and hatred when her husband, Ambrose disappoints her in their marriage. However, I found Alma to be boring. She lives a life sans adventure except for the last part when she undertakes a journey to Tahiti and then to Amsterdam. Also, I didn’t feel Alma endearing or engaging, and maybe that’s the reason I couldn’t feel the personal loss of Alma.

Ambrose is the husband of Alma, but only in name. Alma could never understand her husband – the strange but always happy man who talks about divinity and spiritualism. Though Ambrose plays a small role in the book, he overshadows a major part of the story.

I found Henry Whitaker to be the most interesting of the lot. He is an uneducated man who makes it big in life, both in terms of money and name. He is quirky and unapologetic, and that what makes him endearing to the reader. One never knows what to expect with him around.

Enough about the characters, let me talk about the writing style of Gilbert. Gilbert’s narrative is simple and witty. However, the plot slows down in the middle and there are times when exasperated you feel like putting the book down. A reader comes up with a lot of questions which sadly get answered a little too late, by the time which the reader has already moved onto the next plot and raised another set of questions.

The book is undoubtedly well researched, but I found an overabundance of historical facts and scientific research which intrigues the reader initially, but ends up frustrating him. At the end of the book, Alma is shown to be a contemporary of Darwin and anticipates Darwin’s work. I mean I am already exhausted by the many plots and subplots and didn’t want another one opening right at the end of the book which served no other purpose than to show one more failure, this time professional, that Alma went through.

Gilbert is a brilliant and talented writer, and she has put a lot of time and research into the novel, but a surplus of facts and details might have just killed the book.

I wouldn’t recommend the book unless you like big fat books with history, facts and details.

I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to one of them. Seriously, only one!!

2. A book written by a Female author


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