5th January 1800. At the beginning of a new century, Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Kew Gardens. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones) and her knowledge of botany is equal to any man’s.
An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of plants and science. As Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.
Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose is a Utopian artist. But what unites this couple is a shared passion for knowing – a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all of life.
It would be a safe bet to say that most of our group were surprised by Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel. With her Eat Pray Love reputation preceding her, Gilbert’s Signature explores a completely different take on writing style. Most found the botanical history very interesting and loved the inclusion of Banks and Darwin within the pages. There was plenty to learn here, both historically and for the naturalist. To learn from a novel is something our group always happy to do.
It is also safe to say that the majority of us found the novel itself too long, and that it became quite exhausting in the end. Characters Alma and Henry were strong and clear, but so much energy was given to plants that there was little left for the other characters.
Regardless of these rebuffs, the scores were on the high side, with nothing below a five out of 10. So it cannot be said this book was a failure in the enjoyment stakes. If anything, we believe it worth the read, even if only to confirm that Gilbert is not just about fluffy, self affirmation (my words entirely!).