My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The heroine, Alma Whittaker is the daughter of Henry; an entrepreneur who rebelled against the subservient abeyance of his respectable gardening father and clawed his way to the highest echelons of new wealth in a new world.
Alma exists for the better part of her life in a stifling cocoon of wealth, botany and academia. She is fiercely intelligent, frustratingly naïve and endearingly self-effacing. Her story unfolds within the confines of a vast residence and within a small circle of family, friends and acquaintances where there is scant close relationship or understanding.
The icy reserve of her mother Beatrix, her nanny Hanneke and her adopted sister Prudence exacerbate Alma’s social isolation and encourage her lifelong intimacy with moss and a binding closet. The introduction of Retta does bring a warmer relationship but she is portrayed as such a flibbertigibbet that she is quite hard to grasp.
Alma’s love interest, George Hawkes, is never really described. There is no clear sense of what Alma loves about George. It may be that he is the object of her inexperienced affections because her exposure to the world is so limited that he became the target for her burgeoning sensuality out of mere happenstance. This means there is no emotional oomph and meaty substance to get your teeth into.
Alma is prevented by a powerhouse of a male role model, in Henry, from venturing out and making her own life. Yet, it seems incongruous that a character of keen inquisitiveness, exposed from childhood to the great minds of her time, with such capacity to observe and theorise so adeptly upon her world would not delve deeper into human relationships and push the boundaries of her father’s permission earlier in the story.
Consequently, Alma does not come of age and begin her adventure as an independent woman until very late in life and in the book. Her late blooming and emotional starvation may be an accurate reflection of the constraints upon freedom of expression and female liberty in 19th century Philadelphian society. Yet, this means the reader must persevere to stay with Alma to the end, which could easily have come at least one hundred pages earlier and it is tricky to invest in aloof characters hidden behind a wall of stoicism.
Gilbert beautifully weaves botanical, historical and scientific discovery into a fictional tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the melding of fact with fiction, such as, Henry’s discovery of Jesuit’s bark in Peru and other such curiosities. I smiled at Gilbert’s literary skill and entertaining use of language, colloquial or other, such as the description of Henry as an ‘impudent picaroon, this mackerel-backed shaver, this jack-weighted hob.’
On the whole, The Signature of All Things is a gentle, character-light read carried along smoothly at an evolutionary pace on a bed of botanical wonders.