Friday, February 19, 2016

The Signature of All Things

I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert recently, and since have finished her book The Signature of
All Things.  It's a big novel that carries the reader over one hundred years and many places. Both of my book groups read it for our February meetings. It's an amazing story and kept me fascinated through-out.  It's a long book, 499 pages, but I couldn't stop reading it because I kept wanting to know what was going to happen!  Although, I have to admit, I had a bit of a hard time initially getting into it, but once the main character, Alma Whittaker, was born, I was hooked!

The story began with the telling of Henry Whittaker, Alma's father, who was born poor in 1760 outside of London.  Henry's father was an orchardman at the Kew Gardens which were favored by the King.  Henry was a rough boy, but was also intelligent and resourceful.  He was also interested in trees, like his father, and that is where Henry's success began, albeit not in a legitimate way-he began stealing specimens and selling them to interested buyers around the world. He was eventually caught, but was admired for his knowledge, so was not punished but exiled and sent to sea as an informer.  When he returned it was four years later (1780) and he had learned much, including how to pose as a gentleman. He was considered a man of botany and was then sent to Peru on assignment.  He spent about four years there, then went to work for the Dutch East India Company.  After working for that company for six years, he decided to  move to Philadelphia to live.  He chose a wife in Holland, the daughter of an old, respected botanist, and together Henry and Beatrix moved to America in 1793. By this time, Henry was a rich man.

Henry bought property and built White Acre, one of the finest properties in America.

"He wanted the place to pulse with extravagance.  He was not afraid to be envied."

He built a factory and a large warehouse by the harbor and went into business with a pharmacist.  Henry was in the business of producing medicine: "pills, powders, ointments and tonics". He had several glasshouses on the White Acre property where he cultivated Native American flowers for export.  "By 1800, he was easily the richest man in Philadelphia". And it was during that year Henry and Beatrix's daughter Alma was born.

"She was her father's daughter.  It was said of her from the beginning."

Not only did Alma look like her father, she was as intelligent as he ever was.  She paid great attention to him and learned everything from and about him.  She adored him. And she adored botany. She lived her privileged life on White Acres as the only beloved child until she was nine years old when one night a young girl was left at White Acres.  They called her Prudence and she was adopted by the Whittaker's, who had been unable to have another child after Alma.  And, according to Alma, after Prudence arrived everything changed.  As the author wrote:

"Henry waved his hand dismissively. 'Ah, you all make too much of Prudence.  To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.' So you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally."

So Alma grew up with Prudence.  Prudence married and Alma was a botanist, left to live her life as a spinster at White Acre.  Until the appearance later in her life of Ambrose Pike, a man ten years younger than Alma, who was an amazing botanist illustrator.  He and Alma connected on a spiritual level, that Alma mistook for love.  Things got quite complicated and Ambrose left. I don't want to tell anymore of the story...

Briefly, the rest of the book tells the story of Alma's life and travels as she tries to learn more about Ambrose and their connection to each other.  It was fascinating, and I couldn't stop reading to learn more the farther I got into the book.

The writing was wonderful:

"In all of our lives, there are days that we wish we could see expunged from the record of our very existence. Perhaps we long for that erasure because a particular day brought us such splintering sorrow that we can scarcely bear to think of it ever again. Or we might wish to blot out an episode forever because we behaved so poorly on that day-we were mortifyingly selfish, or foolish to an extraordinary degree. or perhaps we injured another person and wish to disremember our guilt."

As for the title of the book? The author wrote:

"The old cobbler [Jacob Boehme] had believed in something he called 'the signature of all things'-namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree of earth.  All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator's love." 

The Signature of All Things also left one noting the signature of God in the relationships between people, too.  Fascinating book!


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