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Originally published October 27, 2013 at 3:05 AM | Page modified October 27, 2013 at 7:19 AM

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‘The Signature of All Things’: a woman of brains and heart

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new historical novel, “The Signature of All Things,” follows a brilliant young 19th-century woman, a born scientist whose questing heart and restless intellect propels her around the world. Gilbert discusses her book Friday, Nov. 8, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Elizabeth Gilbert

The author of “The Signature of All Things” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at Town Hall Seattle. A $35 ticket includes one copy of the book and admission ticket for one person. A $40 ticket includes the book and admits two people. Available at the door, at and at the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600).

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‘The Signature of All Things’

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking, 499 pp., $28.95

This detailed, researched and rather austere historical novel is nothing like Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.” For some Gilbert fans, this is bad news; for other readers who resoundingly disliked “Eat, Pray, Love” for its bottomless self-absorption, it is a relief to encounter Gilbert’s unattractive but brainy and venturesome botanist heroine.

“The Signature of All Things” is huge in its scope, spanning several continents and an array of historical developments, all told through the detail-oriented eye of the third-person omniscient narrator. The author’s three years of research are amply evident in the rich overlay of historical events, noted figures (such as Captain Cook, whose murder in Hawaii the protagonist’s father observes from the deck of the ship), and locations, from London to Peru and Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Tahiti. The perilous sea voyages are particularly vivid — enough to make a reader reach for the Dramamine.

At the heart of the story is the brilliant Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 (three weeks after the death of George Washington). Alma is enthralled with the taxonomy of mosses as a way of understanding the ways in which species evolve. The daughter of a self-made, British-born millionaire botanist who amassed a fortune by importing medicines and pharmaceuticals, Alma has what you might consider an unusual childhood. She is an astute observer of the animal kingdom, spending hours watching one snake slowly devour another, and by the age of 8 (assisted by her mother), she has dissected the head of a lamb. Later, as a young adult, Alma asks a loyal household retainer, “Who will ever put a ring on these fishwife’s hands of mine? Who will ever kiss this encyclopedia of a head?”

A born scientist, Alma channels her romantic disappointments into moss research, devoting herself to a phylum no botanist had ever analyzed as a life’s work.

When botanical illustrator Ambrose Pike arrives on the scene, however, this logical realist of a woman feels drawn to the idealistic visionary whose orchid illustrations are superior to anything she has seen.

Nothing turns out quite as Alma expects, though; her bridegroom harbors a secret that destroys their happiness, and he goes off to Tahiti to manage the family’s vanilla plantation. What happens after that, as Alma also makes the difficult sea journey to Tahiti, transforms the last third of the book.

Sometimes, Gilbert, who writes as if she herself were a 19th-century novelist, reaches rather far in her quest for unusual similes: Alma’s nursemaid Hanneke is described as “an immensely competent young wash basin of a woman.” Hanneke may be round, but she assuredly isn’t concave.

Colorful and as detailed as a botanical drawing, “The Signature of All Things” depicts remarkable landscapes: the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, the woodland setting of the luxurious Whittaker mansion, the brightly colored but surprisingly forbidding shores of Tahiti — as well as a lot of fairly chilly relationships. (It’s never clear, for instance, why Alma is never able to get beneath the “diamond-hard quality” of her beautiful adoptive sister Prudence.) Alma herself is something of a cipher, but she is unquestionably a character readers won’t soon forget.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (

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