The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Two books featuring intrepid young naturalists have found their way to me this week, and both have been glorious. In The Signature of All Things, Henry Whittaker is a self-made, self-educated botanist who grows to wealth and acclaim by discovering a way to grow the trees whose bark is the cure for malaria. He then expands into other pharmaceutical plants, and marries the daughter of the curator of the finest horticultural gardens in Holland. They emigrate to America, and after multiple unsuccessful pregnancies, give birth to their only child, Alma. As Alma grows, it becomes apparent that she has inherited a quick mind, a love of research, and her parents' gift with plants. Once adulthood claims her, she recognizes that she is not beautiful, and she is too educated for most suitors' preference, so she dedicates her life to the study of mosses, becoming one of the world's foremost bryologists.
When she was eight, Alma's family adopted the child of one of their gardeners when he was killed suddenly and she was left orphaned. Prudence was the same age as Alma, and although much more beautiful than Alma, she wasn't nearly as intelligent. The two girls never grew close, both of them longing for the qualities that the other had. As adults, Prudence married their tutor and together he and she became stalwarts in the abolitionist cause. Alma drew further and further away, feeling less and less in common with her sister. Additionally, they had a childhood friend Retta, who was pretty but not intelligent, not even completely sane, they feared. About the same time Retta came into Alma's life, so did George, a naturalist brought to the estate by Alma's father. He and Alma work side by side and he publishes her first research. She falls in love with him, confides in her sister, and George surprises her by marrying Retta.
Years later, Alma's heartache over George finally dimmed, a younger man who illustrates orchids more beautifully than Alma has ever seen, comes to her attention. Ambrose Pike captures Alma's mind and heart, and although younger than she, he proposes. His intentions go completely awry during the proposal, and soon Alma finds herself trapped in a marriage that is not at all what she thought she was signing up for. In her anger, she has her father send Ambrose to his vanilla plantation in Tahiti, doing her best to convince herself that she's not having him banished, but knowing in her heat that that is exactly what she's doing. Unfortunately, Ambrose passes away in Tahiti, and trying to find peace, Alma travels to Tahiti herself, in her old age, to learn about Ambrose's life there. She finds answers, but also many more questions. It is only as she leaves Tahiti, settles in with her mother's family in Holland, and meets another naturalist who has also been working on a paper about evolution, that she finally comes into her own and knows peace in her heart.
Epic in scope, this book covers a lifetime, and incorporates some very impressive science, especially given the timeframe that Gilbert is writing about, which is the dawn of what we know as modern science. Alma is an impressive character, and Gilbert has brought her to life beautifully- she's complex, brilliant, imperfect, selfish, and loving. This story reminded much of the works of Geraldine Brooks and Tracy Chevalier, two of my favorite historical fiction authors who bring strong women to life, crafting them as full and well-rounded characters. I loved all that I learned reading this. I loved the journey Alma took. I loved the examinations of the human heart and of the different paths love can take. This is a beautiful story.