As some of you may know, I adored Eat Pray Love by Gilbert, and have since been picking up her novels to read. I picked up a copy of The Signature of All Things, and then got lazy and found an audiobook through Libby instead so as to knock it off my TBR quicker. I’m glad for that decision though, because the audiobook was amazing, and I don’t think I would have stuck with the novel had I physically read it.
Read by Juliette Stevenson, whose voice gave life to the main character, the reader follows the life of Alma Whitaker from pre-childhood through her death, which covers most of the nineteenth century. At a time where women were merely sought after for wifely duties, Alma set her ambitions high, in the world of biological science. As a young girl, she as always reading and fascinated by the world around her. Though not considered an attractive girl, her father doted on her, embracing, encouraging, and supporting her efforts to expand her mind with all kinds of knowledge. Her mother, on the other hand, was harder on her, teaching her to be a strong, desirable marriage prospect. As a young woman, she was given the responsibility of managing the Whitaker’s personal library, which also allowed her extensive opportunity to research all that she desired, but in comparison to her adopted sister, she was lagging behind in gaining the attention of potential suitors.
Well into adulthood, Alma is extremely invested in her career as a female botanist, working on a theory of evolution through her research on mosses. However, she realizes that she is lonely. Her sister and best friend have been married, and the man she thought she loved married one of them. As she was starting to assume the life of a spinster, a man named Ambrose Pike came into her life, and allowed Alma to experience love. Though Alma and Ambrose see the world differently (one as a realist, the other as a surrealist), they both are desperate to understand where they belong in it’s vastness.
Gilbert relays this wonderful legend of Alma Whitaker, female scientist and adventurer, in a fashion that keeps the reader enamored. With the addition of Juliette Stevenson’s voice, I was hanging on every word of Alma’s tale. Even when the pace slows and the action is low, there is something so special about Gilbert’s writing that keeps you tuned in, soaking up the details. It’s a commitment to read, being just under 500 pages, and I would say absolutely worth it- but I’d strongly advocate for the audiobook, as it adds another layer of magic. I will never forget the imagery of Alma as I read:
“The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos-the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path. Nobody stopped her. She was a comet.”
If you haven’t read this novel, please do. It’s one for women, for the science-minded, for historical fiction fans, and for the fans of Elizabeth Gilbert.