The Signature of All Things is a vast family saga set in the post- Age of Enlightenment era and told through the eyes of the characters, Henry Whittaker, and his daughter, Alma, both of whom are gifted botanists and entrepreneurial scientific spirits within their own lifetimes.
Gilbert's writing is relentlessly paced and effortlessly lyrical as she brings the wild adventures of the irrepressibly brilliant but mulishly unorthodox Englishman, Henry Whittaker, to vibrant life on his journeys across the world's oceans in search of undiscovered botanical samples. Fiction rises up out of history as Gilbert intertwines Henry's fate with larger than life characters that include the forbidding Captain James Cook and the brilliantly eccentric Joseph Banks. As Henry's life plateaus towards the steady accumulation and retention of wealth and the enjoyment of scientific follies and frolics in the New World the story is taken up by his physically plain and socially awkward daughter.
Alma, an academically gifted young woman, possesses an outlook on life that is the strange product of her Dutch mother's measured Lutheran beliefs and her father's untamed and unpolished passion for scientific and entrepreneurial endeavour. She eventually emerges as a self-possessed young woman whose confidence is shored up by the unqualified belief placed in her abilities and her destiny as an independent thinker by her parents and her formidable housekeeper/nanny, Hanneke de Groot.
Only with the arrival of an adopted sister, the exquisitely beautiful but psychologically and emotionally impenetrable Prudence, does Alma discover that science will not assist her in understanding the deep-seated complexities of sexual attraction and envy that directs so much human behaviour. This idea is further explored as Gilbert tells the story of Alma's maturation as a woman who despite being over-endowed with wealth, personal gifts and exposure to men of influence appears to be unable to find a partner with whom she can explore the powerful sexual passion that rules her from within.
There is so much to praise. The writing is simply wonderful and the characterisation extends way beyond the Whittaker family and the host of colourful secondary characters to the family home, the landscape and the abundance of botanical life that inhabits it and the historical age itself.
For those readers who are looking for a tidy and identifiable story and character arc however, this may not be the story for you. The Alma in the final stages of the book is precisely the same person as the little girl dancing around the lawn under the direction of the Italian astronomer many hundreds of pages beforehand. Nor are the relationships between the characters and the story lines fully resolved. In this way, The Signature of All Things imitates the scientific realities of life, that not everything can be mastered or perfected or even fully understood in the course of a lifetime, but that it is the journey of discovery that counts.