When I see a book about a female botanist in the nineteenth century, I expect one of two storylines: either “woman fights sexism to pursue her dreams” or “unconventional woman finds fulfillment in romance”—or both. This book flirts with both narratives but settles down with neither, and is better for it.
The Signature of All Things is a big, ambitious book, beginning with the world-spanning exploits of one Henry Whittaker, thief turned botanist, in the late 1700s, before moving on to his daughter Alma about 50 pages in. Alma grows up fantastically wealthy and encouraged to follow scientific pursuits, falls in love with a local publisher, and you think you know where this is going.... but then, well, it doesn’t go that way, and a third of the way through the book she’s 48 years old, and then the real story begins.
One of the difficulties with this novel is that there’s no real driving plot—or rather, Alma’s life is the plot, though there are some significant time-skips—but it consistently defied my expectations and kept my interest. It’s a book about the Enlightenment, with a lot of research and discovery and expanding of horizons, and I came away impressed with Gilbert’s respect for science. Alma is someone whose intellectual life is as important to her (perhaps more so) than her emotional life, and most authors would have a hard time writing about that sort of character in a positive and believable way—which makes sense; writing a good novel almost always requires an author to be intensely interested in feelings. But Gilbert balances the science and emotion well, and even has me looking at mosses (Alma’s specialty) with new eyes. Her writing style itself draws the reader in, energetic and engaging and far more polished than I expected from someone best known for a mega-bestselling mid-life-crisis memoir (judge me all you like for that).
But too often in this 499-page book I felt Gilbert was perhaps getting carried away with her writing. Whole sections go on far longer than necessary (the Tahiti episode, for instance); at least 50 pages could have been cut without harming the story. Worse, the books feels weighted more toward narrative summary than scenes, which means we’re being told a lot about the characters and their activities rather than being in the story with them watching events unfold. I’ve noticed this problem in a number of recent novels, and I don’t know whether it originates with authorial lack of confidence or just the desire to cram in everything about a character’s life, but it results in a less engaging and memorable story. When Gilbert gets into the scenes, it’s excellent; the solar system dance tells us more about Alma’s childhood than all the summary preceding it, and lingers far longer in the reader’s mind besides.
The biggest problem with all the summarizing is that it distances the reader from the characters. Alma is well-developed and believable, and I enjoyed her story, but my investment came more from curiosity to know what would happen next than any emotional connection to her (and for all the science, this is still a novel, so emotional connections are to be desired). The secondary characters are colorful and often intriguing, but suffer from being described more than shown. Prudence, in particular, is potentially fascinating but gets too little page time, leaving her relationship with Alma not quite believable (they grow up together from the age of 10, without access to other children, and maintain a polite distance the entire time?). Ambrose works because we see his relationship with Alma develop as she experiences it. Retta is bizarre—in fact, all Gilbert’s women have extreme personalities of one sort or another, and by the time Retta was introduced my suspension of disbelief was breaking. Henry is a mess of contradictions not really explained by the 50 pages spent on his backstory, though beginning with his adventures rather than Alma’s childhood was an astute choice. For the most part I believed in these people, but by zooming out too often Gilbert kept me from truly knowing them.
Overall, then, I found this a worthy novel but not a great one, though it has great potential that a firmer editor might have captured. Not having read Gilbert before, it was a pleasant surprise and an enjoyable read, and I admire its bold choices. I just wish it had been a bit more focused.