Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By Nimi Vashi

It is a fictional story about Alma Whittaker who through her life`s journey discovers answers to the most basic questions of life, survival and a common theory that can explain the evolution of everything. Set in the backdrop of the times when man just started pondering upon the changes that occur in nature, by observation. When Darwin was busy studying finches on Galapagos island there in a garden in United States was a lady who studied mosses on a stone, which gave her answers to all the big questions about life as man began to question his origin from the son of God.

Through the book blurb one feels that it is not about discoveries in botany alone, but about the times when life and evolution as we know and quote now was being understood. This is the story of a lady, who minutely observes mosses and gets to the answers to these big questions!

If you ever had a knack of curiosity about life and its origin, this book will charm you from page one. The story begins with Henry Whittaker(Alma’s father), a young lad working for Sir Joseph Banks who begins working in the famous gardens of Kew. His aim is to make it big in life and he has a keen observation and sharp mind. He identifies the right species whose bark is the most potent and also a way to grow it. He returns to Sir Joseph banks, one of the most famous naturalists of England and the owner of gardens of Kew, with a plan to cultivate this in the Himalayan region, only to be ridiculed.

Henry determined and humiliated promises to be a greater man than Banks ever was, marries the right woman and manages to cultivate the Cinchona tree in America and the business flourishes. He invests largely in the early pharmaceutical business and owing to his expertise in cultivating plants and understanding them, soon becomes one of the richest men, much before the lead protagonist of the story Alma Whittaker is born. Alma is not beautiful but born to parents of extra-ordinary brilliance is a child of great mental capability. Her childhood goes through lessons in multiple languages along with science which is all around her. Alma studies plants in her garden and even begins publishing her observation in scientific journals at a very young age. She finally decides to study mosses, a less crowded field but the one she believes could give her the answer to the most complex questions on earth, of life, creation and change of life forms.

On the personal front Alma gets a beautiful step sister, suddenly adopted by her parents. Alma herself not anywhere near beautiful finds it difficult to adjust, to now share the attention her parents gave her. She also falls in love, not just once, but each time her life has more questions for a life time. Will she get to the ultimate truth? Well all these are the questions that might tempt a non-scientific reader to the book. To the scientific mind, the back-drop itself is a nirvana, travelling through times when the earliest pharma industry began, to the times when Charles Darwin finally published his findings, to the times when Alfred Russel Wallace put forward his theory of evolution. Alma Whittakers patience to study mosses without any high end equipment, her patience observing them each day and finally her methodically creating the cave of mosses in the earliest times when we didn`t know so much is truly an inspiration.

The initial hitch of publishing papers without her first name, so as to not be recognized as a woman however was agonizing. The desert however are the sea voyages and exotic Tahiti especially the original, natural cave of mosses, giving one the experience one felt with Life Of Pi.

Overall the book is an inspiration and especially for the scientist in you. The way the characters grow at a challenging time makes up for a great read.

One of the best ever fiction books about science. Highly recommended.

Title: The Signature of All Things
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Category: Fiction 
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing India
Price: Rs 599
Rating: 5 stars on 5


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