"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert | Source

The Signature of All Things was written by Elizabeth Gilbert and is her most ambitious fiction novel to date. You will remember Gilbert as the author of the New York Times Best Seller, Eat, Pray, Love, her hugely popular memoir of her year traveling around the world following her acrimonious divorce from her first husband.

Gilbert took on the world alone to find herself and to find solace after the divorce. She ate in Italy which is a great place to do that, she prayed in India at an ashram, or more precisely tried to meditate, in which India is the place to do that, and she fell in love in Bali, a beautiful tropical island in Indonesia, and a great place to do that.

Her current husband is "that Brazilian guy" from Eat Pray Love and she is now living in Frenchtown, NJ with her Brazilian husband writing and running a large imports store called Two Buttons.

Gilbert has been reading voraciously since childhood and writing since college and today continues to write. I have just finished reading her most recent novel, The Signature of All Things.

I have also read her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love and this newest novel is quite different. While Eat, Pray, Love reads like a personal journal or diary of her adventures in the world - very light, sassy, and funny, The Signature of All Things, is a completely different writing genre.

It is publicized as a neo-19th century novel and although the writing is modern and accessible, it has the feel of a novel from times past. It has the feel of a Dickens novel which helps to give the readers the feeling that they are plopped down right there in the 19th century. Gilbert is a "straight-up" storyteller in this fiction novel and a great storyteller at that. I enjoyed reading this novel.

While Gilbert was finding herself in her memoir by traveling around the world, her protagonist, Alma Whittaker, also finds herself by traveling around the world, the 19th century world, in this novel. But, Alma's trip comes later in her life around the age of fifty, which is much later in life than Gilbert took her own trip.


Gilbert's writings

Pilgrims 1997

Stern Men 2000

The Last American Man 2002

Eat Pray Love 2006

Committed 2010

The Signature of All Things 2013

"The Signature of All Things"

This novel is the story of Alma Whittaker, the unmarried daughter of Henry Whittaker, a botanist and botanical pharmaceutical businessman.

Alma is born in 1800 to the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the White Acre Estate, which is full of botanical gardens and greenhouses to house the many American and foreign plants Whittaker has acquired over the years from his travels around the world.

The first quarter of the novel, tells the background of Henry Whittaker, a plant thief from England, whose punishment is to be sent on the voyages of Captain Cook to find South Sea island plants to bring back to Mother England.

He is of low birth but of high ambition, and when he realizes his low birth will hold him back from ever becoming a member of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, he takes off for America, with a Dutch wife in tow, and arrives in Philadelphia in 1793.

Alma, the couple's only daughter is born in 1800 and is groomed by her parents to be their intellectual equal and a botanist scientist also. White Acre is Alma's world and plants are her only friends. She is educated at home by her no nonsense Dutch mother and leads a sheltered life.

At a very young age she is encouraged by her father to join them at dinner parties where the guests are the great botanists of the 1800's. She is encouraged by her parents to speak her mind and be part of the conversation and she learns much about plants, botany and adults from these dinners.

Her mother and father see that Alma is the intellectual equal to these adults, which sets her apart from girls her own age. In fact, she has no competition at all, until her parents adopt an orphaned girl, Prudence, who becomes her sister. The girls, however, are quite different in looks and temperament.

While Alma is big boned and plain looking, from her English father and Dutch mother, with wild red-hair that refuses to be tamed, Alma certainly is not considered pretty. Her new sister, Prudence, is small boned, beautiful and with lovely golden hair. The two girls could not be more different.

Where Alma is intellectual and outgoing, Prudence is of average intelligence and reserved. The two girls grow up with an armed truce between them. As adults, their lives take completely different paths and directions.

Alma, growing up on this botanical estate, remains unmarried, although Prudence and a friend of hers marry, and Alma begins a long career as a taxonomist. She develops a specific passion for different kinds of mosses and how they grow and reproduce.

Although Alma is unmarried, her moss passion and other botanical pursuits keep her busy and content. She makes a bit of a name for herself as she publishes papers of her botany research in journals. She signs her name simply as A. Whittaker so as not to offend the sensibilities of the men in this area of science.

Finally, at the age of 48, Alma finds love, or so she thinks she has, in Ambrose Pierce a painter and lithographer of botanical drawings, specifically orchids. They are the most beautiful paintings of any botanical artist in the world and Alma invites him to the White Acre Estate to meet him.

They form a strong friendship bond and work together on the Whittaker botanical estate; Alma continuing with her moss research and Ambrose, making drawings of the different botanical plants on the estate.

The two finally marry and it is the most unusual marriage ever found in literature. Because of the great "misunderstandings" when entering into the marriage, Ambrose is banished to Tahiti by Alma to run the vanilla bean farm the Whittakers own on the island.

Several years later when Alma learns of Ambrose's death, she is compelled to go to Tahiti to try to understand Ambrose, herself, and her 'marriage.' Alma may be be intellectually intelligent and know her plants but she knows nothing about life until she learns of it in Tahiti.

The name Alma means soul in Latin. On her trip to Tahiti, Alma is searching for her soul and her truth, both about herself, Ambrose and her marriage and also the truth scientifically, which she does find by the end of the novel.

Alma also represents the soul of White Acre Estate and the soul of her botanical research and findings, which unlike her father, is free of the shadow of thievery that has always hung over her father.

Alma learns that life is difficult in Tahiti and competition is harsh and constant. "Anything less than a fight for endurance is a refusal of the great covenant of life." She learns the key to living life and finding success in life is to endure.

While on the island, Alma ultimately learns and comes to the same conclusions about the evolution of life as Darwin, her contemporary, does. But, Alma takes it a step further than Darwin did at the time. She applies what she has learned to man's creation as well as to her mosses and to Darwin's finches on Galapagos Island.

Alma calls her findings, the "Theory of Competitive Alteration" and it is the same as Darwin's "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest." But, Alma doesn't know of Darwin's study and research yet.

When Alma finds the answers to the question she has sought - her own Enlightenment - Alma leaves Tahiti, but does not return to White Acre. She has outgrown that now and her sister Prudence is running the estate after her father's death.

Alma lands and settles in the Netherlands, at the home of her mother, the van Deventers. Here she passionately writes her thesis, the "Theory of Competitive Alteration," but never does publish it because she sees a hole in her research.

Although she believes in "survival of the fittest" how does she explain people of altruistic personalities like her sister Prudence? How does one explain the fireman that gives his life to save a child in a fire? How does one explain the soldier who dies to save his buddies?

Through the meeting and conversation with another scientist who also believes in Darwin's theory, Alma is able to come full circle and appreciate her own scientific findings and her own life, as unusual as it has been. Alma has lived a fulfilled life and has endured.


Gilbert has done her research for this novel. She has studied the plants and the mosses she writes about. She has visited the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew in England to get the feel for a botanical estate and the history behind the botanical gardens of the 18th and 19th century. She read an old leather bound book at home where she grew up about Captain Cook and his voyages to the South Seas. She studied Darwin's theories. So she knows of what she writes.

I found this novel to be fascinating and I could understand Alma's intellectual and passionate love of plants and botany. She is a strong woman who comes to terms with her own strengths and weaknesses and finallly comes to terms with her own world as well.

The first quarter of the book about her father's nefarious background in England as a plant thief, his travel around the world, and finally establishing his own estate in America I found was a bit boring and hard to get through. Several times I questioned, why was I reading this novel at all?

But, I endured, and finally when the book shifted to Alma's birth and her life on the estate, it became much more interesting. It really kicked up a notch when Ambrose arrived and Alma discovering her relationship with him and to the end of the novel was quite the page turner. I couldn't put the novel down.

Alma's time on Tahiti is the climax of the novel and the most interesting because this is where she makes her discoveries about herself, Ambrose, and her life in general. She also learns, by observing the Tahitian people and embracing their culture, her scientific discoveries of the evolution of man and "survival of the fittest."

The rest of the novel is her coming to terms with her discovery and realizing even though she is a woman, she was on the same intellectual level as Darwin. They both had come to the same discoveries about the evolution of the world and man, but through different processes.

Writing this novel as a 19th century writer and novel is a definite change for Gilbert from her previous writings. She is an excellent story teller in this fiction tale and for most of the novel, engages the reader. The ending is quiet and sublime - sort of how Alma has progressed as a person and a woman in this novel. As a character, Alma definitely changes from the beginning to the end of this novel. And, the change is for the better.

Alma, the scientist, finally finds her soul.

Note: Don't miss the video below in which Elizabeth Gilbert explains how she came to write this fascinating novel. She also explains from where the title of her novel comes.

And be sure to watch the second video in which Gilbert gives her thoughts on writing in general and the elusive creative genius writers have.

Update: April 21, 2015. Elizabeth Gilbert has just announced that PBS' Masterpiece has picked up The Signature of All Things, for a multi-series production. She will let us know when it will appear. Can't wait to see this novel brought to life!

Gilbert explains her novel

Gilbert's thoughts on writing and "having a genius."

© 2013 Suzette Walker suzettetaos

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Comments 40 comments

cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

cmoneyspinner1tf 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

Excellent review. I'll be sharing this.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

I have not read her yet but I want to. Thanks for the reminder and excellent summary. She just gained a reader because of your article.

Ashok Rao profile image

Ashok Rao 3 years ago from Mumbai, India

I enjoyed the review. I am definitely reading it. Thanks!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

cmoneyspinner: Thank you for visiting and reading this. I highly recommend this book and thanks for the share!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: You will really enjoy reading this book. Being a guy you may like the beginning better than I did. The info about the father seemed to drag on and on for me, but I have to admit this background sets the mood and background for Alma's relationship with her father. This is definitely NOT chic-lit. I probably should have made that more evident in my review. Alma just is not the typical strong woman character in so many books today. She is a unique and different character and what makes this book so interesting. I even had to keep remindjng myself as I read that this was fiction because the whole story seems so real and true I think because of Gilbert's botanical knowledge which is amazing. Thanks so much for reading this and I wish you happy reading of her novel.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Ashok: Thank you so much for reading and I am glad you enjoyed this. This novel is truly an interesting one and as I told Bill above, as a guy you may find the beginning more interesting than I did. This is NOT a chic-lit book - Gilbert wrote this for all types of readers. Thanks for your visit and I hope you enjoy reading this novel.

AUPADHYAY profile image


Thanks suzettenaples, for sharing this info hub. I learnt a lot from it.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 3 years ago from Upstate New York

Oh, my! This is a MUST READ!!! Thank you for the review. I'm off to Amazon to get this book.

ocfireflies profile image

ocfireflies 3 years ago from North Carolina

I really want to read this book. I loved the video. The philosophy: "The Signature of All Things" sounds so fascinating. The idea of being kind of trapped and longing for intellectual exploration is something I can relate to...V++++


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you Aupadhyay. I am so glad you read this and enjoyed it. I am glad you could learn from it. I highly recommend this book - it is a good one and rather fascinating. Thanks so much for your visit.!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Paradise7: I am so glad you enjoyed this review and it has inspired you to read this. It is a fascinating book and I think you will enjoy reading it. So glad you visited my site.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Kim: So glad you read this and enjoyed it. I highly recommend this book - I found it fascination once I got into it. I was fascinated by the title of this book also - "The Signature of all Things" - I have always found God in nature and I guess that is why. He has left His signature on all of us. I never thought of that until I had seen the video also. I had no idea what the title meant until I viewed the video myself. I am glad she explains it because that was my big question when I finished the book. I still hadn't understood the title for sure. i think you would enjoy reading this one, Kim. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comments. Most appreciated.

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 3 years ago from malang-indonesia

I had never heard about Elizabeth Gilbert. Nice review and thanks for sharing with us. Voted up!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you prasetio. Gilbert is a great writer and I have enjoyed reading her books. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this and for your comments. Most appreciated.

starstream profile image

starstream 3 years ago from Northern California

What an inspirational and awesome book review. I enjoyed reading it. I will share it and include it linked to my writing hub. Thanks

Vellur profile image

Vellur 3 years ago from Dubai

Great book review, I have not read the book but I will do now. This novel is interesting and intellectual. Great write. Voted up.

RobinBull profile image

RobinBull 3 years ago from Moore, Oklahoma

Excellent review. I may have to pick this up.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

starstream: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. This is an excellent book and so engaging. I think you would enjoyed reading this one. Thanks for your lovely comments and the share and link. Most appreciated.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Vellur: Hello and I am glad you enjoyed reading this and that this review has inspired you to read the book. Thanks so much for your lovely comments. Most appreciated.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

RobinBull: Thank you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. I hope you read it and I think you would enjoy it. Thanks for your visit.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

Gilbert is a remarkable woman and proves life goes on after early hardships in relationships. I found your review to spark my interest in her book.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

teaches: Thank you so much for your comments. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and I am glad it has inspired you to want to read her book. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading this.

mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 3 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

suzettenaples, you are a natural at a book review. I appreciate your honesty regarding the beginning of the story, and admire your strength to push forward through a slow beginning. This sounds like an enjoyable story thanks to your telling of the tale.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mike: For me, this book did had a slow beginning. Now someone else may find it interesting. Don't get me wrong, the beginning is relevant to the entire novel and I understand why she wrote it like she did, I was just giving my personal take on reading it. I am a Gilbert fan, and so that kept me reading; I knew it had to get better! LOL And I am so glad I stuck with it, because it is a great read and I highly recommend it to anyone to read. This is definitely not a chic-lit book. Anyone would be interested in this even though the protagonist is a woman. When I have read a good book I like to recommend it to others especially if it has a relevant message to it. Thanks so much for reading this Mike and I enjoy reading your stories so much.

vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

Wow, what a way to bide your time after a divorce! I enjoyed reading about the author and will look for this book on Kindle. It sounds like a page turner, once you get into the characters. I do think her knowledge of botany would make for a unique read. Thank you for sharing!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

vespawoolf: Yes, she certainly knew how to get over a divorce! Her publishers paid her an advance and that is how she paid for the trip as long as she wrote a book about her experiences. She did and it became a best-seller and a movie! How about that? Should be all be that talented and lucky. Gilbert has really taken off on a different novel by doing this botanical historical novel. Quite creative and genius if you ask me. So glad you enjoyed reading this and I think you would enjoy reading the novel also. As you read, it gets better and better.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 years ago from South Africa

"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert is certainly a novel I will enjoy. Thanks for this excellent review, suzettenaples -:)

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Martie: This is a great novel and I think you will really enjoy reading it. It is an interesting and engaging story of one woman's journey through life and love. Fascinating.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

Hi, Suzette, I saw this impressive video the other day - Elizabeth Gilbert's perspective on a writer's genius, and thought it belongs in this hub of yours

.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you Martie, and I will view it now.

mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 2 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Hello suzette, I do not know if you saw this. You may enjoy it.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Martie and Mike: Thank you so much for forwarding this link! I just viewed it and it is wonderful. I will definitely add it to this hub. Isn't Gilbert wonderful? She is such a wonderful role model for me and all writers. I have to say, I get poems and thoughts for articles and short stories the same way she describes Ruth Stone does. I have to always carry a journal with me so I can write down these thoughts when they come to me, and they do come quickly like a roaring train, before they are gone and I forget them. I could so relate to her talk here. Thanks again to both of you!

mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 2 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Silly me. I did not realize that Martie just shared the same link. I guess some things are worth repeating.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

No Mike, I appreciate the link - to be recommended by two great writers here on HP means it really is good and it was! I appreciate you taking the time to forward me the link. Thanks!

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 22 months ago from sunny Florida

I have read Eat, Pray, Love and have seen the movie. And enjoyed both very much.

I will have to be on the look out for this at our library. It sounds like a novel I will get lost in.

Excellent review

Angels are on the way


Voted up++++ shared and pinned to Awesome HubPages.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 22 months ago from Taos, NM Author

pstraubie: I think you would really like this novel. It is a long one but worth the read. It will be coming to PBS and I can't wait to see the this put to film. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this.

marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 21 months ago from Jeffersonville PA

What a comprehensive and fascinating review, Suzette!

Having read (and very much enjoyed "Eat, Pray and Love"), it was most helpful that you made some comparisons to style. I also appreciated your honesty about the beginning and will bear that in mind as I do intend to check this book out - exciting that PBS will be airing the story as well.

Excellent work - reviews are definitely your forte! Hugs, Maria

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 20 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Maria, I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this review. I think you will enjoy the novel. It is a departure from her regular writing style and she is quite successful with this writing. I can't wait to see this novel come to life on PBS. Thanks so much for your visit and insightful comments.

Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 19 months ago

I have not read any of Elizabeth Gilbert's books, but guess I will be in the very near future.

Wonderful review Suzette.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 18 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Shyron: Thanks so much for reading this hub. Gilbert's books are so interesting and she writes from an interesting perspective. I have only read this one and Eat, Pray, Love but both are wonderful books. She has a new book out right now, but I don't remember the title right now, but I highly recommend her books - she also writes with a great deal of humor.

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