Alma Whittaker is born in 1800, the daughter of Henry, a self-made English entrepreneur whose botanical import-export firm makes him “blisteringly rich,” and his practical Dutch-born wife, Beatrix. Growing up on her father’s large, isolated Philadelphia estate, Alma spends her days studying plants, which are described in loving detail. A brilliant scholar, yet unattractive and overly tall, she abandons hope for romance until, in late middle age, she meets Ambrose Pike, a talented orchid illustrator who shifts her life’s course.
The language delights from the get-go. “His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery,” it says of Henry Whittaker, scribbling his account of Alma’s birth in his ledger. Likewise, its structure is refreshingly old-fashioned. As the setting moves from England to America to Tahiti and elsewhere, the author narrates Alma’s lifelong coming-of-age journey in a sprightly voice full of compassionate wisdom. Some secondary characters’ personalities are beyond eccentric, but they certainly keep things entertaining.
Without getting preachy, Gilbert reveals much that readers can take away from Alma’s experiences. Everything Alma encounters has something to teach her, from the quiet strength of mosses to her surprising realizations about family members to her own body’s desires. Over the years, she adjusts her views as needed and always soaks up new opportunities. Her story honors scientifically-minded women while demonstrating that it’s possible to create a full life despite personal disappointments. The result is a novel that’s both edifying and very satisfying.
The Signature of All Things was published by Viking in October ($28.95, hb, 512pp). The UK publisher is Bloomsbury (£18.99). This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review; it was an Editors' Choice title.