I had wondered if the author of the popular novel Eat, Pray, Love could do any better than this – one woman’s romantic and rather self-indulgent journey through food and prayer in search of peace and a great love. The Signature of All Things proves that she most certainly can. This tale, of a brilliant young woman who’s life spans both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, highlights not only the possibility that women could be just as well-read and intelligent as men, but that they were forever thwarted by their sex. 

Alma Whittaker does not let this stand in her way, however, and the reader is taken on a wild and imaginary journey from parochial Philadelphia, where her self-made wealthy father encourages her inquiring mind and intellectual abilities, to Peru, Tahiti and Amsterdam. We meet a wide range of interesting people – scientists, missionaries, and Tahitians. Gilbert’s character delineations are vivid and picturesque, as is her managing of place and landscape, atmosphere and period.

I am not remotely interested in plants – either ancient and significant, or living today, but the book held me spellbound, within the fascinating world of mosses, and the symbolism that this ancient species holds in terms of evolution. Sometimes the narrative bordered on the school biology textbook, and i almost abandoned it halfway. But I persevered, and found that it was redeemed by my renewed respect for the women of yesteryear who fought against insuperable odds to become educated, and to be heard. 

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