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After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has returned to fiction, and clearly she's reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. The Signature of All Things is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution. The story begins with Henry Whittaker, at first poor on the fringes of England's Kew Gardens, but in the end the richest man in Philadelphia. In more detail, the story follows Henry's daughter, Alma. Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma's case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn't cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Oct. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Born in 1800 to an early American capitalist who built a pharmaceutical empire from nothing, Alma Whittaker is given opportunities not enjoyed by her peers. A plain, private young woman, Alma devotes her time to the development of her mind and the study of the natural world. Life passes quietly, measuredly; botany and the family business fill her time, with little to disrupt the contented nature of things. Until middle age, when Alma falls in love-with Ambrose Pike, an artist and dreamer, a man who opens her mind and her world to things that cannot be measured with a ruler or seen through a microscope. Feeling more alive than ever, Alma basks in the joyous chaos her life has become. But when her husband dies unexpectedly, Alma takes to the seas, traveling the world, seeking answers, and finding that the truth was there inside her all along. -VERDICT Gilbert's (Stern Men) first novel in 13 years gets off to a strong, compelling start but loses its way midpoint; awkward plot points make the second half seem at times like another book entirely. With that caveat, readers who loved Gilbert's smash memoir Eat, Pray, Love will likely enjoy this 19th-century take; those whose taste runs to female-centric historical fiction may want to check this one out as well. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]-Leigh Wright, Bridgewater, NJ (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
*Starred Review* Gilbert, the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006), returns to fiction with her first novel in 13 years, and what a novel it is! Taking her sweet time and digressing at will into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she tells the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. Born to Henry Whittaker, the richest man in Philadelphia, who rose from his station as the son of a lowly gardener to an import tycoon, Alma has the benefit of wealth and books, spending hours learning Latin and Greek and studying the natural world. But her plain appearance and erudition seem to foretell a lonely life until she meets gifted artist Ambrose Pike. Their intense intellectual connection results in marriage, but Ambrose's deep but unorthodox spiritual beliefs prevent them from truly connecting. Alma, who has never traveled out of Philadelphia, embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Tahiti to Holland, during which she learns much about the ways of the world and her own complicated nature. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The publisher is pulling out all the stops for the high-profile author, including both print and online campaigns and an author tour; Gilbert's celebrity may also draw off-the-book-page interest.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2010 Booklist