The Signature of All Things

I just finished The Signature of All Things, the latest book by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of bestseller Eat, Pray, Love). I went into it not knowing much about the book other than the author.


The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things tells the life of Alma Wittaker, who was born in Philadelphia in 1800. Alma’s father is Henry Wittaker, a self-made man who traveled with Captain Cook in his youth and made his fortune from pharmaceutical and exotic plants. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, is a strict, disciplined Dutch woman, who is also an expert botanist.

Alma grows up at White Acre, her family’s vast Philadelphia estate, where she spends her time studying science, math, and languages and exploring the wilderness and gardens. She develops a sharp, scientific mind and a love for taxonomy. While wandering the estate one day, she discovers a moss-covered rock and becomes fascinated by the overlooked world of moss, launching her into a lifetime of bryology (the study of moss).


I have to say it was an ambitious move by Elizabeth Gilbert to write a 500-page novel about a moss-loving spinster from the 1800s. My mom finished the book before me and jokingly asked, “How do I recommend a book about moss to people?”

The Signature of All Things is about more than just moss, though. While it’s interesting to see the perspective of a female botanist from the 19th century (women were not welcome in scientific communities back then), the book also explores the tension between science and spirituality, altruism, evolution, and relationships. It also describes Alma’s lifelong sexual frustration, but I thought all those references to Alma’s “quim” and “binding closet” were excessive and perhaps unnecessary.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a charming and skilled writer, but while I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, I felt like it fell flat somewhere in the middle.

Overall verdict? It’s decent. I liked it. I didn’t love it.