Elizabeth Gilbert’s highly anticipated new novel, “The Signature of All Things,” is, in many ways, a love letter to moss. An ambitious monolith of a novel about a female botanist set in the 19th century, the whimsical, imaginative story is her first work of fiction in 13 years and her best to date.
Gilbert, who began her writing career as a journalist working for GQ, Spin, and the New York Times Magazine, jumped to creative writing after her short story about bartending in New York was adapted into the film “Coyote Ugly.” She later earned national recognition for her 2006 memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love.”
The commercial success of “Eat, Pray, Love” allowed Gilbert time and freedom to pursue her passion for the next book—an epic novel that is part Dickens, part Austen, and part Robinson Crusoe.
The novel tells a story of a smart, witty “comet” with engine-red hair called Alma Whittaker, who was born into the family of Henry Whittaker, a wealthy Philadelphia importer of exotic plants. Alma is the rare Victorian heroine who decide to pursue her passion, ending up in a career as a botanist, the natural studies one of the few professions that women could take up at the time. Alma is to mosses what Beatrix Potter is to rabbits, an equal female counterpart to Darwin. The novel follows Alma for almost a decade, from young girl to masturbating adolescent to the end of her scientific journey.
The title of the book comes from the exchange between Alma and Ambrose Pike, an orchid illustrator and Alma’s love interest, who says he “believes in the signature of all things,” that God “had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit and tree on earth.”
Ambrose’s explanation of his belief in plants’ ability to transcend the world is one of the many magical moments of the book. And moss, the elegant plant Alma picks to study because “it’s quiet,” becomes a symbol for the delightful complexities contained in even the most unassuming objects.
“The Signature of All Things” reminds readers about the joy and spontaneity of travel literature by taking them on a spellbinding adventure across the world, surrounded by exotic flowers, foods, and locales. The 19th-century setting awakens our imaginations, while the novel’s strong female protagonist inspires us to dream, find our moss, and pioneer. Alma is that jewel of a female that reminds us to throw our flags as far as we can and then run after them.