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Caught pilfering trees from Kew, young Henry begs to be spared the noose. Whittaker is soon happily pilfering bark of the cinchona tree — a medicine that cures malaria — from the Peruvian jungle, but when he goes back to England with high-flown dreams of joining the Royal Society of Fellows, he is laughed at, ridiculed. Offended, he sells his botanical treasures to the Dutch East India Company instead, immigrates to the United States, becomes a very rich man and lands himself squarely in Philadelphia society.

So it is that his daughter Alma is born a rich American, far from the poverty of his childhood.

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Growing up in a Palladian mansion at White Acres, raised by a no-nonsense Dutch mother and an ambitious father who continues to build a fortune on powders, unguents and pills, Alma is a deeply curious child. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother had not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. Alma finds learning easy, natural, thrilling; her beautiful sister labors over it as if she were hammering stone.

All the same, Prudence defies prediction and marries their stiff, waxen-faced tutor.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert - Reading Guide -

Meanwhile, Alma, discovering her appetite for sex in furtive, auto-induced ecstasy, soon learns that the man she fancies — a young publisher of botanical prints and books — has chosen to marry her best friend. Alma soldiers on alone, using her solitude to find strength and pursue knowledge, helping her father shape his pharmacological empire even as she writes scholarly articles and publishes books.

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Botanical life is endlessly rewarding, ever florescent. For years to come, it is a happy salve.


But the life form that proves most instructive to her is ordinary moss. The very substance in which her father packed specimens considered far more valuable: Nothing moved within this mossy world. She peered at it so closely that she could smell it — dank and rich and old. Gently Alma pressed her hand into this tight little timberland.

“The Signature of All Things”

With one minor exception which unfortunately comes at the climax of the book , you always feel like the characters are acting exactly as those people would in that situation. The Signature Of All Things is beach reading for smart people. You should totally read it. I would never have imagined that we would share a favourite novel!

I second this recommendation wholeheartedly. Nobody likes to think of themselves as having anything in common with someone they dislike. Even something as minor as a favorite book.


I really liked this novel too. I was hesitant to pick it up, since I could not get through the so famous: I will pass it along again. It also talks indirectly about academia and its demands.

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