As springtime approaches, Elizabeth Gilbert's beautiful and complicated period novel, The Signature of All Things will be a natural choice for book clubs. But let's be honest — this novel would be worth discussing at any time of year.
In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker — a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist — but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe — from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who — born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution — bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
"THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS" DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- How is The Signature of All Things similar to or different from other period novels you've read?
- Do you like Alma Whittaker? Why or why not?
- How is Alma shaped by her close relationships? In what ways is she close to her father, her servant, her adopted sister, her husband? In what ways is she distant?
- What does Alma's love for and research of mosses signify about her personality? What does it say about the standing of women scientists in the 1800s?
- How does Alma's lack of beauty or attractiveness affect her life, for better or worse?
- What roles do sex, self-love and chastity play in this novel? How do they contribute to the story overall?
- Alma memorably theorizes about varying kinds of time, including Moss Time, which moves very slowly. What do Alma's theories about time reveal about her beliefs?
- What does Alma gain from her affection for plant life, and does that compensate for what she lacks in human relationships?
- Do you agree with Alma's decision to go to Tahiti? Why or why not?
- How does the missionary Alma encounters in Tahiti, Reverend Welles, differ from the locals? What does she learn from each of them?
- Does Alma's trip to Tahiti and discoveries about her husband's experiences there give her closure?
These questions should get you started, but feel free to add some of your own!
I constructed this menu around Nazihah's original pairing for The Signature of All Things: buttery chicken sandwiches. She wrote, "It is easy to see that even though Alma is the central figure in this book, she often takes a backseat to other characters, from her sister Prudence — who we are told is as beautiful as Alma is plain — to the men in her field for no reason other than that she is a woman. But Alma makes up in intellect what she lacks in appearance and these simple chicken sandwiches are no different."