THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS
An incandescent and riveting character study, The Signature of All Things is a century-spanning tale of discovery and unconvent- ional love. Alma Whittaker, the cap-tivating protagonist at the center of it all, is an admirable genius tempered by regular old human foibles that she discovers and grapples with throughout her years. Impeccable botanical research informs the story, yet is written in an easily digestible manner for the uninitiated, allowing the reader to completely sink into its world. Finally, the novel’s exploration of women’s roles in 19th-century academia makes it something of a parable for modern gender imbalances.
Alma Whittaker is born in 1800 to an Englishman who pulled himself from poverty to being the richest man in Philadelphia through botanical studies and trade. A brilliant child well taught by her equally intellectual parents, Alma follows in their footsteps to become a gifted botanist herself, a most unladylike path. Nearly obsessed with her work, she never starts a family of her own, yet lives a remarkable and well-traveled life, albeit with moments of heartache and disappointment along the way. (VIKING, Oct., 512 pp., $28.95)