The Signature of All Things

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My husband surprised me with this choice of book. He usually makes his selection from award-winning sites and bestseller lists; he often picks books that won Pulitzer prizes.

His choice of author, Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, however, surprised me. Well, I hadn’t heard about her new book which is an enthralling story combining history, science, and discovery with human needs and experiences- and love.

Given that we were on our way to Holland as our first stop of this year’s home swapping adventure, it was a natural choice. The book begins and ends in Holland, Amsterdam, where we were going to spend a three weeks vacation.

Much of our time was spent reading as the novel is mesmerizing and unputdownable in a quirky sort of way. It started in 1800 when the main character, Alma Whittaker, is born to a former lowly gardener who has made it beyond his station, an import tycoon who becomes the richest man in Philadelphia.

A homely girl, Alma is naturally curious and talented, gets an extraordinary education, including the classics, that in those days was only available and acceptable for men. She becomes a gifted amateur scientist in the secluded world on her father’s estate. Like so many other women of that era, she remains unknown while men like Darwin make it to the limelight of science and earn their reputation.

Her life changes dramatically when the artist Ambrose Pike enters her life. Her unfulfilled love leaves her shattered and sends her on an exploratory journey of her own from Philadelphia to Tahiti and then to her family roots in Holland.

There are many back stories in this book, e.g. about Captain Cook’s voyages, botany, and evolution that contribute to the book’s fascination. The author who is not a scientist did an incredible amount of research on the various subjects for this book.

After finishing this awe-inspiring novel, we made a pilgrimage to the “Hortus Botanicus” to retrace some of Alma Whittaker’s steps. This hands-on approach left us both highly satisfied with our reading experience. They are smart enough to sell her book in the gift shop.

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