This is a big and sprawling book, ambitious by all accounts, spanning the entirety of one individual’s life. I liked the writing from the beginning, it was beautiful and lyrical and exceeded my expectations. I also loved how the story started out, with a description of the main character’s father’s life and also with the narrative of the main character’s childhood. It was perhaps my favorite part of the book… while the story was still innocent.
The Signature of all Things tells the tale of the life of Alma Whittaker, a botanist formed by the scientific and atheistic beliefs of her father and mother, who were hugely succesful during their business endeavors. The novel fundamentally deals with the dichotomy between the natural and the spiritual and the search to build a bridge between the two. But it does so through the life and perspective of Alma.
Alma is not exactly a likable character, she’s selfish and un-elegant and ego-centered, but she is an intelligent one, which makes it interesting to follow her.
The book also deals with a-lot of sexual frustration. Alma, besides being a naturalist and a scientist, is also a sensualist… but a frustrated one. She wants to get to know the wonders of sex which she is deeply attracted to but has never gotten to experience first-hand. I must say, the sexual frustration is evident throughout the book. It’s one of the main themes.
The second part of the narrative begins when Alma meets the man who would later become her husband, a spiritual artist who is also somewhat clairvoyant. He claims to have heard the music of angels and seen the mysteries of the spiritual worlds, and wants nothing more than to see them again, to become one with the spirit.
He’s the complete opposite of Alma, and they fall in love. But it’s not the love Alma was expecting from him. After their marriage ends (I won’t give anything away but I’ll only say it wasn’t a pleasant ending) Alma, grieving for the man she recognized as a genius and never stopped loving, embarks on another adventure in her life, one which leads to another mystery: Those of natural evolution.
The novel paints her as a contemporary of Darwin and Wallace, the only other two persons who came up with the theory of evolution on their own. It’s a very interesting approach. The story ends with Alma placidly content with her life, with all its dissappointments but also with all of her acheivements, however undiscovered they remained.
The book weaves all this together seamlessly, taking the reader through the luxuries of a wealthy estate in Philadelphia, the theories of the spiritual world from the mouth of a clairvoyant, the savageness, strangeness yet friendliness of a Tahiti plantation, and the comforts of family life in Holland. A mix of science and spirituality and the heights of heaven and the depths of sensualism. It’s an interesting blend of the two extremes of life, and the elusive union between the two.