Henry Whittaker is the son of an orchardman at Kew. He learns his father’s trade, aware of the disparity between his father’s station (hence his own) and the royalty around him. Henry begins to steal plants from Kew to sell on the black market. He is caught but once it is learned how much he was able to steal without anyone knowing, he is put to work on ships sent around the world to ensure nothing else is stolen. Henry has big plans for himself and after several attempts, manages to secure prosperity. He also secures a Dutch wife and they move to Philadelphia. Henry builds his wealth from plants and soon his American greenhouses and international ventures make him the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, if not the Western Hemisphere.
While The Signature of All Things begins with Henry, it is not his story. Alma Whittaker, his daughter, is born in 1800. Alma is by no means a pretty girl but she is smart and capable. Her education is in her father’s ever-expanding library and at the dinner table, which is always filled with erudite and interesting people. She is admired by her father and all is well until she suddenly acquires a sister. The Whittakers take in the girl, change her name from Polly to a more appropriate Prudence and begin to educate both girls formally with a tutor. Alma is unable to truly comprehend what has happened.
Later in life, when Alma was a woman of science, she would better understand how the introduction of any new element into a controlled environment will alter that environment in manifold and unpredictable ways, but as a child, all she sense was a hostile invasion and a premonition of doom.
The introduction of new elements and the changes that indubitably occur is a prominent theme of The Signature of All Things. Prudence and Alma make a friend who is an interesting third that brings them closer for a time. Men enter the picture as they grow older. There’s the tutor, a local printer, an artist who draws the most exquisite botanical prints. All of these people enter Alma’s life and forever change her.
As do the leavings, for people also eventually leave for one reason or another.
When Alma is alone, and much older, she finally decides to leave her cocoon of a life and travel. She has been living in a microcosm – her family home in Philadelphia, studying the same mosses on rocks for decades – and it is time to crack open the cocoon and explore. She is searching, constantly searching, for answers, for new ideas, for love. In her own, independent and defiant way, she finds what she seeks.
Alma is a beautifully complicated character. She is smart and curious. She is unattractive and knows it. She is a caretaker who can be jealous. She is scared and she is courageous. All of the characters have depth, whether plumbed or not, which creates a richness around Alma. She may have been raised among exotic plants that need studying and interest but it is the people around her that confound and require the most work to discern.
Elizabeth Gilbert has written a wonderful novel about love and family and yearning. It begins formally, like a historical tome about Henry Whittaker and his life and travels. Alma’s early years begin to transition to a more narrative style and once she is old enough to begin having opinions and asking questions, we are distinctly with Alma as she negotiates life. The formal tone never truly disappears but that feels appropriate for a novel about an academic woman in the nineteenth century.
The ending is quiet but Alma’s mind is quiet. How glorious it is to feel connected even while alone.
There were three of us.