The Signature of All Things was a sweeping book, a very fulfilling story. It follows the life of a woman born to privilege in Philadelphia in the early 19th century. Her father is a prominent businessman who runs a botanical supply company, and the adventures of his younger years are included too as a sort of forward to the book. The pace of this book is very slow and deliberate, and so while at times whole years or even decades are skipped, the book as a whole feels very luxurious and thoughtful. Alma’s younger years are a riot of color and charisma, as she grows up in a household that values education and witty dinner conversation, and the group of friends and acquaintances she gathers around her in those years will weave in and out of the story for the rest of the novel. Her life after that was one surprise turning point after another for me; just as she finally seemed to be settling into one phase of her life, something new and exciting would inevitably throw a wrench in the works. The insights into the world of science in 19th century were fascinating as well. I will say I was very satisfied with how her “golden years” turned out. There were many roads Gilbert could have taken here, and I’m glad she went with the one she did.
I’d recommend this book for most women who have some experience of life already behind them. This is not a book for the faint of heart, and this is not a book for someone who wants everything to work out perfectly. The title of the book, The Signature of All Things, doesn’t even come into the story until you’re already well into it, and it’s not clear until much later why it’s so central to the meaning of the work. But for those who are patient and are willing to weave together many seemingly disparate strands as they come, the beauty and grandiosity of this work will just sweep you off your feet. I’ve been reading a lot of good books lately, and this one is still a standout. I do have to put in a little warning, there is some rather risqué content in there, but it’s well-handled and not dwelt on. It’s hard to write a satisfying novel that takes you from the very birth of a character to the end of his or her life, but this one certainly achieves that. I feel like I grew up with Alma, like I knew her through the middle of her life; I felt like she was a sprightly grandmother that I cheered on. I feel like her life experience has become part of mine. And if that isn’t a sign of a successful novel, I don’t know what is.
In summary, it’s a remarkable work. I enjoyed every page; I often lost myself in the story, and I really feel like I’ve even visited some of the places that are visited in the book. If you’re looking for a novel that will really give back for what you invest in it, this is a good novel to look at.