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Publisher's Summary

A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the number-one New York Times best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure, and discovery. Spanning much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker - a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia.

Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction - into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist - but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe - from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who - born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution - bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of listeners.

©2013 Elizabeth Gilbert (P)2013 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

  • 10 Best Audiobooks of 2013 (Salon)

"Juliet Stevenson's face would be instantly familiar to Anglophiles everywhere, especially those with a penchant for British TV (her films include "Truly Madly Deeply" and "Drowning by Numbers"), but she's also a first-class narrator…. Stevenson conveys the sense that the hand on the wheel is firm and certain and that the reader may lean back in perfect confidence that neither journey nor destination will disappoint." (Laura Miller, Salon)

“Gilbert's triumphant return to fiction is matched by Juliet Stevenson's lyrical reading. Both author and narrator capture the listener from the novel's opening words.” ( AudioFile)
"[A] rip-roaring tale… Its prose has the elegant sheen of a 19th-century epic, but its concerns — the intersection of science and faith, the feminine struggle for fulfillment, the dubious rise of the pharmaceutical industry — are essentially modern." ( The New York Times Magazine)
"The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert’s 20-year career: a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist.” ( The Wall Street Journal)

What members say

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Don't miss this one

Once again, for the past week, I have been in the enviable position of loving a book so much that I didn't want it to end. I have found Elizabeth Gilbert's name, unfortunately for her, will more often than not pull a rolling of the eyes from someone when I mention it. I have had to convince my friends and family that Gilbert is a fine writer - even if you didn't want to go with her on her self-reflective journey which I found more of a romp than a great work of non-fiction. Nonetheless, if you have this prejudice, don't let it stop you from listening to this excellent book.

Gilbert can tell a good story and this one is a dandy! It spans 80 years but I never lost interest and found myself plugging in to the story in the oddest of places just to hear what came next: the equivalent of a page turner. The characters are vibrant and riveting and the tale is full of life. Juliet Stevenson is one of Audible's very best narrators,truly; if you have never heard her read a book, it is your loss - she is nimble and talented with the change of character. Great story, fabulous narrator - it doesn't get much better than that.

53 of 54 people found this review helpful

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  • Dina
  • LAKE ZURICH, IL, United States
  • 10-18-13

An Educational and Epic Oddity

This book was so many things...epic, sad, funny, educational, weird, creepy, and gruesome. A strange description for the life of a wealthy, mostly spinster, botanist spanning the 19th century. Elizabeth Gilbert certainly has an incredible imagination and a beautiful way with words. And, the narrator for the audiobook, Juliet Stevenson, was spot on. The main character was an intriguing mix of brilliance and innocence with real human flaws. And, yet, I just didn't form a bond with her. In addition, I found the communication issues with all the various players, which lead to devastating life choices, frustrating. This is what kept this sweeping and unusual novel from being a 5 star book, for me.

53 of 55 people found this review helpful

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  • Deborah
  • Burke, VA, United States
  • 10-16-13

A well written tale, masterfully read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the narrator made it an exceptional listen. It's a family saga, told from the daughter's point of view, and recounts her life and adventures through the 1800's. It is also an unusual tale of a strong, well educated woman of this time period, who has maximum freedom to live a life that few women could at the time. I did question some of Gilbert's choices in Alma's life and it's certainly not a happy, fairy tale type of story, but nonetheless, it is well researched and beautifully told.

25 of 26 people found this review helpful

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  • Kristyn
  • GREER, SC, United States
  • 10-11-13

Alma is a character to remember

What did you like best about this story?

Alma is such an odd character but you are made to feel a kinship with her almost from the very start. I had a hard time turning off this recording for even short amounts of time - while it is not a fast-paced story, I was intrigued enough to want to stay by Alma's side throughout. This was a unique look at a most memorable character and quite an enjoyable listen.

20 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Really loved this book

Would you consider the audio edition of The Signature of All Things to be better than the print version?

This narrator is fantastic with voices - while I didn't have the print version, I really enjoyed it as audio.

What did you like best about this story?

I enjoyed the sweeping scope of the story, and the way that all the details of Alma's life matter. We are treated to the careful consideration of how she becomes the woman she does, and how she is sometimes a product of her times, and how she sometimes rises above her times. I missed her when I was finished!

Any additional comments?

I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert's mind works. This book is deliberate and thorough in its examinations and explanations, but I never found it tedious.

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

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Great writing, loved characters, plot fell apart

Where does The Signature of All Things rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

One of the best written for sure. Her writing is glorious. The evocation of the time and the botanical research was fascinating. I enjoyed it tremendously. Alma was a fascinating character and I loved all the details about botany about which I know nothing.

What could Elizabeth Gilbert have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

Tightened the plotting. It really falls apart after the death of Henry Whittaker when Alma leaves for Tahiti to discover the "truth" about Ambrose. I really had no idea why she went, why she needed to find out what happened to Ambrose, and when she got there and found out the "truth" it was still unclear what the hell really happened to him and why. It was very murky and inadequately explained. The plot had gaping holes. Also, the ending was contrived.

I did love all the details about life in Tahiti at that time and Roger the dog was the most charming character in that part of the book.

What about Juliet Stevenson’s performance did you like?

Her reading was delightful and dramatic and brought the book to life. Her English and Dutch accents were charming. However her American accent was jarring. She couldn't get the American "r" right. I kept wishing she would have just given the American characters British accents and stopped making them sound like they'd taken bad elocution lessons.

Any additional comments?

I found Gilbert's portrayal of Alma's sexual attractiveness almost anti-feminist. Gilbert seemed to "buy" the explanation that because Alma was big and homely no man would want her even though her mother was big and homely and attracted her father who was no slouch (which she actually indicated she knew) So why was Alma, despite her simmering sexuality, not of sexual interest to any man. Chances are she would have had lots of suitors, she was going to be one of the richest heiresses in Philadelphia after all. I felt that Gilbert herself couldn't see men being attracted to someone who looked like Alma.

Gilbert didn't seem to really "get" the sexual magnetism of Ambrose. From "Eat,Pray, Love" I gather that wispy-type men don't appeal to her so she really didn't understand why others were obsessed with him.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • M Kaner
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • 10-07-13

Great performance and so-so story

I love Juliet Stevenson as a performer and normally try to listen to everything she is reading. Saying all that, I had my reservations about this book (due to author who I don't normally like) but purchased it only because of the performer. I was pleasantly surprised in the beginning. The story was developing really well and the first part was down right enjoyable. It went down hill after that. The story is weak, characters are not developed, in short, a disappointment. Only because I love Juliet Stevenson, I will finish the story. Otherwise, I would not bother.

38 of 44 people found this review helpful

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  • Ellenaeddy
  • Chesterton, IN, United States
  • 06-15-14

Science in it's weirder corners

I did love this book. It's about a woman naturalist at the turn of the 18th century. She's brilliant, spoiled, unlovely and heart wrenchingly brave. It's the heart of darkness for women, done brilliantly.
Do read it. Astonishing.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Jane
  • Chicago, IL, United States
  • 10-10-13

4 ½ stars. I enjoyed it. A thoughtful book.

It’s fiction but educational - about historical botany developments.

At times it felt more like a textbook biography than fiction. There’s a lot of narrative. She did this. She felt that. Those parts could have used a little more dialogue or action. That’s what I’m used to in fiction. Still, it was enjoyable and thought provoking.

The beginning is about Henry Whittaker and how he built his wealth in the plant industry - like growing trees in a new location to produce malaria medicine. He was born in England and later moved to Pennsylvania. The rest of the story is his daughter Alma - following her entire life. She was born in 1800. She had an excellent scientific mind. She studied plants and mosses. She wanted to love a man, but that was unlikely due to her large size and unpleasant appearance.

The “signature of all things” is the idea that God provides plants to help or heal the human body - with clues. For example: the walnut helps the brain and looks like a brain. A plant that helps the liver has leaves that look like a liver. Other subjects in the story are Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, human altruism, and self sacrifice.

There were two sadnesses in the book. One, the story follows Alma to the end of her life. And that by definition is always sad - one’s life ends. The other sadness was something Alma always wanted but never got. I felt sad for her, but there was also a lot of wonderful in this story.

One of the most important things in books is characters. That was great here. It was fascinating how different Prudence and Alma were. Prudence was so odd - and her choices and actions odd. Ambrose was unique - special. Henry’s life was not typical. Alma was interesting throughout. And other characters provided more variety. This is not “we’ve heard it before.” This is a unique collection of characters.

I was unhappy and frustrated with one part. Alma asked a man questions about his actions and relationship with Ambrose. Those were important questions. The man did not give direct answers. He gave vague answers and I had to ASSUME things. I did not like assuming. I wanted the author to tell me specifics - what, how, and why things happened. I wanted to KNOW that story, and I did not get it.

There are illustrations in the book that are not available for the audiobook. The publisher should have made a pdf file of these pictures - for audiobook buyers to download.

There were several sex scenes of someone pleasuring oneself. Those were briefly described, not a lot of detail. There were also references to men with men; they were told, not shown.

The narrator Juliet Stevenson was fine. However I never got used to the way she said “Tahiti.” Her pronunciation might be typical British, but every time she said it, I felt off in a way that brought me out of the story.

Genre: historical fiction

29 of 34 people found this review helpful

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Satisfying overall, but curious about narration

On the whole, I love the premise and execution of this story--the details and historical context were a true pleasure from beginning to end. And, much as I hate to admit it (I'm one of those Eat, Pray, Love eye-rollers), the overall message was pretty inspiring.

The only thing that bothered me was--excellent as Juliet Stevenson is--why this book was narrated in a British accent. Stevenson's Dutch accents are wonderful, but her American accents seemed all wrong for the period--flat and nasal when educated northeastern Americans like Alma, Prudence, Retta and Ambrose in the early- to late-1800's would arguably have sounded more British than the weird regional twang Stevenson was channeling.
I'm being very picky here because Stevenson is such a pro--this is definitely not a huge issue with this book, because the actual dialogue-to-narrative ratio is actually pretty miniscule, but this is an ambitious novel and the heroine and setting are distinctly American, so I definitely felt a little dissonance whenever the native-born American characters started talking.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful