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Written by Jan Kline on March 20, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, I read and liked Eat, Pray, Love like the rest of female America of a certain age. But I also enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier fiction, especially Stern Men, set in the world of Maine’s lobster fishing industry. So when I heard that she’d published a new novel, my ears pricked up.

I wasn’t sure how I’d like this one. It’s set in an era I’m not all that keenly interested in — America in the early 1800s — and the main character is a botanist. Having just struggled through Galileo’s Daughter, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through another doorstop-sized book on the history of science, novel or no. But Gilbert drew me in from 9780670024858_p0_v6_s260x420the first page with her main character, Alma. Born in 1800, she’s raised by her unusual parents — larcenous, self-taught botanist Henry Whittaker, and learned, taciturn Dutchwoman Beatrix van Devender — with unlimited education, and more freedom than was common for boys of the era, much less girls. The resulting main character is a unique yet somehow believable character on which to hang this wide ranging novel. The usual ladylike rules don’t apply to her, so she’s free to pursue her ideas, her sexuality, and her curiosity with abandon:

Alma had grown tall as a man by now, with broad shoulders. She looked as though she could swing an ax. (In point of fact she could swing an ax, and often had to, in her botanical fieldwork). This need not have necessarily precluded her from marriage. Some men liked a larger woman, who promised a stronger disposition, and Alma, it could be argued, had a handsome profile, at least from her left side. She certainly had a fine, friendly nature. Yet she was missing some invisible, essential ingredient, and so, despite all the frank eroticism that lay hidden within her body, her presence in a room did not kindle ideas of ardor in any man.

The book follows Alma from birth to old age, from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. Her relentless need to examine, categorize, and understand nature costs her the comforts of a more conventional life, but makes for unimaginable freedom for a woman of this era, and an engrossing story.

author photo: Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

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