Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013) is a sweeping story about a woman scientist in a time when it was not expected or encouraged.
Alma Whittaker was born in 1800 to a self-made millionaire and his no-nonsense Dutch wife in Philadelphia. The book spans the entirety of her life, from her indulged childhood through her early years of heartbreak and the study of mosses, to her middle years of disappointment and more heartbreak. Her search for a lost husband takes her across the world to Tahiti, while her later years are spent in Amsterdam, pursuing her ideas on evolution and natural selection at the same time Darwin was coming up with his evolutionary theories.
It’s a fat 500 pages, and I loved it. I’ll not soon forget Alma, privileged and homely, brilliant and lonely, brave and stubborn. This book is full of ideas about the interplay between biology and spirituality, and the puzzle of human beings; but it’s also full of love and thwarted desire, of desperate loneliness, and the dignity of work and study.
It’s a complete arc of an extraordinary woman’s life, and despite all the heartbreak and struggle and loss, she’s content at the end of her life, having spent it doing what she loved: studying the world. Despite the mysteries that remain, it proves enough.
If you loved Gilbert’s nonfiction (Eat Pray Love, Big Magic), try out her fiction. You won’t be disappointed.