The Signature of All Things

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Overview

A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry ...

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Overview

A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

 

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Barbara Kingsolver
…the prose is modern and accessible, leaning on plot rather than language to draw readers in. Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…many [readers] will be drawn to Alma's vigor, resilience and moxie and excited by her love of knowledge, not to mention her attunement to the erotica of the botanical world. The Signature of All Things is one of those rewardingly fact-packed books that make readers feel bold and smart by osmosis. Alma commits her life to ceaseless study, but reading this vibrant, hot-blooded book about her takes no work at all.
Publishers Weekly
After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has returned to fiction, and clearly she’s reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. The Signature of All Things is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution. The story begins with Henry Whittaker, at first poor on the fringes of England’s Kew Gardens, but in the end the richest man in Philadelphia. In more detail, the story follows Henry’s daughter, Alma. Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma’s case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn’t cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Oct. 1)
Library Journal
After the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon, Gilbert returns to fiction, where she first made her mark with the Pushcart Prize-winning story collection Pilgrims. Daughter of Henry Whittaker, the richest man in early 1800s Philadelphia owing to the quinine trade, Alma becomes a distinguished botanist, then falls in love with Ambrose, a painter of orchids attracted to the spiritual. Science and art unite; get ready for the 15-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
Gilbert's sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century. All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona--quinine's source--in Peru, Henry's snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland's renowned Hortus Botanicus' curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert's descriptions of Henry's childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it's laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing--a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry--"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"--a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma--botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists--develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There's stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma's adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry's ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle's Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived." A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.
Library Journal
10/01/2013
Born in 1800 to an early American capitalist who built a pharmaceutical empire from nothing, Alma Whittaker is given opportunities not enjoyed by her peers. A plain, private young woman, Alma devotes her time to the development of her mind and the study of the natural world. Life passes quietly, measuredly; botany and the family business fill her time, with little to disrupt the contented nature of things. Until middle age, when Alma falls in love—with Ambrose Pike, an artist and dreamer, a man who opens her mind and her world to things that cannot be measured with a ruler or seen through a microscope. Feeling more alive than ever, Alma basks in the joyous chaos her life has become. But when her husband dies unexpectedly, Alma takes to the seas, traveling the world, seeking answers, and finding that the truth was there inside her all along. VERDICT Gilbert's (Stern Men) first novel in 13 years gets off to a strong, compelling start but loses its way midpoint; awkward plot points make the second half seem at times like another book entirely. With that caveat, readers who loved Gilbert's smash memoir Eat, Pray, Love will likely enjoy this 19th-century take; those whose taste runs to female-centric historical fiction may want to check this one out as well. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]—Leigh Wright, Bridgewater, NJ
The Barnes & Noble Review

To offer a 500-page novel about an undersexed female botanist living and working in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s is an audacious undertaking for any author — but The Signature of All Things comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, a National Book Award finalist and mega-selling memoirist whose Eat, Pray, Love and Committed made her personal journey of spiritual discovery an international sensation. So the ambitious scale and subject of this novel may not surprise many readers.

Though in this book's setting and narrative style, Gilbert reaches out to Victorian novelists like George Eliot as obvious models, The Signature of All Things in many ways resembles her personable and compulsively readable memoirs. Our heroine, Alma Whittaker, is omniscient and chatty, with plenty of asides. "Then quite suddenly, absolutely out of nowhere, Alma was run over by a horse. Or that was what it felt like." We first see Alma through the lens of her father, a self- made Englishman whose petty theft as a child allowed him to sail the wide seas, and make a successful career importing exotic plants to America.

"She was her father's daughter. It was said of her from the beginning." Therefore, Alma is brusque and unfortunately, not very attractive. She is content to study mosses ("bryology" for the uninitiated) and publish several academic papers on the subject, no small feat for a woman of her time. Eventually — after trials and explorations that take her to the far side of the world — she even anticipates one of the greatest scientific theories of the age, though the triumph remains almost entirely personal.

However devoted to her research, Alma, like George Eliot's Dororthea, has a passionate nature, but she is unlucky in love — she fancies her research partner, but he ends up married to her bimbo best friend — which is not to say this book is without its steamy scenes. Thanks to the discovery of "Cum Grano Salis," a book on the joys of sex, in Henry's expansive library, Alma locks herself into the library's binding closet to masturbate for the first time. When finished, she thinks, "I shall have to do this again." Spoken like a true scientist.

Though this novel veers into far-fetched, even kooky territory in its second half, we continue to root for our heroine. Alma marries a younger man, an eccentric orchid illustrator named Ambrose Pike. He tells her of the work of Jacob Boehme, "a sixteenth century cobbler from Germany who had mystical visions about plants...who believed in '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 on earth." For most women, Ambrose's strange philosophy might have been a red flag. But Alma, a forty-eight-year-old virgin botanist, mistakes it for passion.

Sadly, the marriage is sexless and, for Alma, an utter failure. Her former governess Hanneke de Groot tells Alma, "We all fall prey to nonsense at times, child, and sometimes we are fool enough to even love it." She ships Ambrose off to Tahiti to work in her father's vanilla plantation out of embarrassment. When he dies there under mysterious circumstances, she follows in his footsteps, hoping to uncover the truth about Ambrose's rejection of her. The Tahitian interlude, though it includes an entertainingly motley crew of characters, seems a bit out of character for Alma, who defines herself based on self-reliance. But how many epic sagas have you read with a female protagonist that feature almost no romance whatsoever? Perhaps Alma's obsession with her dead husband and her desperate need to "fornicate at last, to put a man's member inside her mouth" is Gilbert's way of acknowledging that even the most independent-minded of women still seek romantic and sexual experience, if not fulfillment, in their lives.

Eventually Alma finds her way to Amsterdam, where she rekindles her relationship with her mother's Dutch family and becomes master of mosses at the Botanical Garden. Her journey does not end with the typical, "reader, I married him" format. Instead, the two men that enter her life are none other than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Upon striking up a friendship with Wallace, Alma looks back on her life. "Darwin would belong to history, yes, but Alma had Wallace.... Then, Wallace too, would be gone. But for now, at least he was aware of her. She was known." In the end, Alma finds happiness doing what she has always loved — not with a romantic partner — but as part of a far-flung community of intellectual equals. Audacious indeed.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670024858
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 19,634
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert is an award-winning writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Her short story collection, Pilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her novel, Stern Men, was a New York Times Notable Book. Her 2002 book, The Last American Man, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which has been published in more than thirty languages; a film based on the memoir, starring Julia Roberts, opened in August 2010. Her most recent book, the memoir Committed: A Love Story, appeared in 2010. In 2008, Time magazine named Gilbert one of the most influential people in the world. Her Web site is www.elizabethgilbert.com.

Biography

While Elizabeth Gilbert's roots are in journalism -- she's a Pushcart Prize-winning and National Magazine Award-nominated writer -- it's her books that have granted her even more attention.

Gilbert departed from reporting in 1997, with the publication of her first collection of short fiction, Pilgrims. A finalist for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award, Pilgrims was also selected as a New York Times Notable Book, was listed as one of the "Most Intriguing Books of 1997" by Glamour magazine, and went on to win best first fiction awards from The Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares.

Since then, Gilbert has successfully alternated between fiction and nonfiction -- a high-wire act that has paid off in a string of critically acclaimed bestsellers that includes her first full-length novel, Stern Men (2000); The Last American Man (2002), a National Book Award for Nonfiction; and Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (2006), a celebrated spiritual memoir that landed on several year-end Best Books lists.

Good To Know

Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Gilbert:

"I was once observed talking in my sleep, smiling with deep bliss as I said, ‘Ah...the writer's life!'"

"I was a terrible crybaby and coward as a child. I still cry a lot and am afraid of many things, like, for instance, surfing, skiing, and the possibility that somebody somewhere might be mad at me."

"I once accosted Wally Shawn in a restaurant where I was a waitress and he was a patron. I said to him something like, ‘You're a lovely, lovely man who writes lovely, lovely plays! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Wally Shawn!' He backed away slowly."

"I am far more of a loner than people would imagine. But I am the most gregarious and socially interactive loner you ever met. The thing is, I am fascinated by people's stories and I'm very talkative and can't ever say No to anything or anyone, so I tend to over-socialize, to give away too much of my time to the many people I adore. Therefore, one of the only ways I can ever be alone is if I go traveling solo. This is the secret reason I travel so much, and to such distant places. To get away from everyone I know. I love my friends and family, but I also love it when they can't find me and I can spend all day reading or walking all alone, in silence, eight thousand miles away from everyone. All alone and unreachable in a foreign country is one my most favorite possible things to be."

"The Disney movie Coyote Ugly was based on an article I wrote for GQ about my experience as a bartender in an East Village dive. I just had to add that bizarre fact because I still can't really believe it myself."

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    1. Hometown:
      Hudson Valley, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 18, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Waterbury, Connecticut
    1. Education:
      BA, New York University, 1991 (Political Science)
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.

Swiftly—nearly immediately—opinions began to form around her.

Alma’s mother, upon viewing the infant for the first time, felt quite satis­fied with the outcome. Beatrix Whittaker had suffered poor luck thus far generating an heir. Her first three attempts at conception had vanished in sad rivulets before they’d ever quickened. Her most recent attempt—a per­fectly formed son—had come right to the brink of life, but had then changed his mind about it on the very morning he was meant to be born, and arrived already departed. After such losses, any child who survives is a satisfactory child.

Holding her robust infant, Beatrix murmured a prayer in her native Dutch. She prayed that her daughter would grow up to be healthy and sen­sible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly pow­dered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gaming tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to a savage Indian, or in any way whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family; namely, that she not grow up to be een onnozelaar, a simpleton. Thus concluded her blessing—or what constitutes a blessing, from so aus­tere a woman as Beatrix Whittaker.

The midwife, a German-born local woman, was of the opinion that this had been a decent birth in a decent house, and thus Alma Whittaker was a decent baby. The bedroom had been warm, soup and beer had been freely offered, and the mother had been stalwart—just as one would expect from the Dutch. Moreover, the midwife knew that she would be paid, and paid handsomely. Any baby who brings money is an acceptable baby. Therefore, the midwife offered a blessing to Alma as well, although without excessive passion.

Hanneke de Groot, the head housekeeper of the estate, was less im­pressed. The baby was neither a boy nor was it pretty. It had a face like a bowl of porridge, and was pale as a painted floor. Like all children, it would bring work. Like all work, it would probably fall on her shoulders. But she blessed the child anyway, because the blessing of a new baby is a respon­sibility, and Hanneke de Groot always met her responsibilities. Hanneke paid off the midwife and changed the bedsheets. She was helped in her ef­forts, although not ably, by a young maid—a talkative country girl and re­cent addition to the household—who was more interested in looking at the baby than in tidying up the bedroom. The maid’s name does not bear re­cording here, because Hanneke de Groot would dismiss the girl as useless the next day, and send her off without references. Nonetheless, for that one night, the useless and doomed maid fussed over the new baby, and longed for a baby herself, and imparted a rather sweet and sincere blessing upon young Alma.

Dick Yancey—a tall, intimidating Yorkshireman, who worked for the gentleman of the house as the iron-handed enforcer of all his international trade concerns (and who happened to be residing at the estate that January, waiting for the Philadelphia ports to thaw so he could proceed on to the Dutch East Indies)—had few words to say about the new infant. To be fair, he was not much given to excessive conversation under any circumstances. When told that Mrs. Whittaker had given birth to a healthy baby girl, Mr. Yancey merely frowned and pronounced, with characteristic economy of speech, “Hard trade, living.” Was that a blessing? Difficult to say. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and take it as one. Surely he did not intend it as a curse.

As for Alma’s father—Henry Whittaker, the gentleman of the estate—he was pleased with his child. Most pleased. He did not mind that the infant was not a boy, nor that it was not pretty. He did not bless Alma, but only because he was not the blessing type. (“God’s business is none of my business,” he frequently said.) Without reservation, though, Henry admired his child. Then again, he had made his child, and Henry Whittaker’s tendency in life was to admire without reservation everything he made.

To mark the occasion, Henry harvested a pineapple from his largest greenhouse and divided it in equal shares with everyone in the household. Outside it was snowing, a perfect Pennsylvania winter, but this man possessed several coal-fired greenhouses of his own design—structures that made him not only the envy of every plantsman and botanist in the Americas, but also blisteringly rich—and if he wanted a pineapple in January, by God he could have a pineapple in January. Cherries in March, as well.

He then retired to his study and opened up his ledger, where, as he did every night, he recorded all manner of estate transactions, both official and intimate. He began: “A new nobbel and entresting pasennger has joyned us,” and continued with the details, the timing, and the expenses of Alma Whittaker’s birth. His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page. His spelling was several degrees beyond arbitrary, and his punctua­tion brought reason to sigh with unhappiness.

But Henry wrote up his account, nonetheless. It was important for him to keep track of things. While he knew that these pages would look appalling to any educated man, he also knew that nobody would ever see his writing—except his wife. When Beatrix recovered her strength, she would transcribe his notes into her own ledgers, as she always did, and her elegantly penned translation of Henry’s scrawls would become the official household record. The partner of his days, was Beatrix—and a good value, at that. She would do this task for him, and a hundred other tasks besides.

God willing, she would be back at it shortly.

Paperwork was already piling up.


Part One

The Tree of Fevers

Chapter One

 

For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world—as we all are passengers in such early youth—and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time, even within elegant Philadelphia. How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again. For it was no more common in 1800 than it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting—although perhaps not noble, as he himself would have been the first to confess.

Henry Whittaker was born in 1760 in the village of Richmond, just up the Thames from London. He was the youngest son of poor parents who had a few too many children already. He was raised in two small rooms with a floor of beaten earth, with an almost adequate roof, with a meal on the hearth nearly every day, with a mother who did not drink and a father who did not beat his family—by comparison to many families of the day, in other words, a nearly genteel existence. His mother even had a private spot of dirt behind the house in which to grow larkspurs and lupines, decoratively, like a lady. But Henry was not fooled by larkspurs and lupines. He grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.

Perhaps Henry would have taken less offense at his destiny had he never seen wealth around him against which to compare his own poor circumstances—but the boy grew up witnessing not only wealth, but royalty. There was a palace at Richmond, and there were pleasure gardens there, too, called Kew, cultivated with expertise by Princess Augusta, who had brought with her from Germany a retinue of gardeners eager to make a false and regal landscape out of real and humble English meadows. Her son, the future King George III, spent his childhood summers there. When he became king, George sought to turn Kew into a botanical garden worthy of any Continental rival. The English, on their cold, wet, isolated island, were far behind the rest of Europe on botanizing, and George III was eager to catch up.

Henry’s father was an orchardman at Kew—a humble man, respected by his masters, as much as anyone could respect a humble orchardman. Mr. Whittaker had a gift for fruiting trees, and a reverence for them. (“They pay the land for its trouble,” he would say, “unlike all the others.”) He had once saved the king’s favorite apple tree by whip-grafting a scion of the ailing specimen onto sturdier rootstock and claying it secure. The tree had fruited off the new graft that very year, and soon produced bushels. For this miracle, Mr. Whittaker had been nicknamed “the Apple Magus” by the king himself.

The Apple Magus, for all his talents, was a simple man, with a timid wife, but they somehow turned out six rough and violent sons (including one boy called “the Terror of Richmond” and two others who would end up dead in tavern brawls). Henry, the youngest, was in some ways the roughest of them all, and perhaps needed to be, to survive his brothers. He was a stubborn and enduring little whippet, a thin and exploding contrivance, who could be trusted to receive his brothers’ beatings stoically, and whose fearlessness was frequently put to the test by others, who liked to dare him into taking risks. Even apart from his brothers, Henry was a dangerous experimentalist, a lighter of illicit fires, a roof-scampering taunter of housewives, a menace to smaller children; a boy who one would not have been surprised to learn had fallen from a church steeple or drowned in the Thames—though by sheer happenstance these scenarios never came to pass.

But unlike his brothers, Henry had a redeeming attribute. Two of them, to be exact: he was intelligent, and he was interested in trees. It would be exaggeration to claim that Henry revered trees, as his father did, but he was interested in trees because they were one of the few things in his impoverished world that could readily be learned, and experience had already instructed Henry that learning things gave a person advantage over other people. If one wanted to continue living (and Henry did) and if one wanted to ultimately prosper (and Henry did), then anything that could be learned, should be learned. Latin, penmanship, archery, riding, dancing—all of these were out of reach to Henry. But he had trees, and he had his father, the Apple Magus, who patiently took the trouble to teach him.

So Henry learned all about the grafter’s tools of clay and wax and knives, and about the tricks of budding, booting, clefting, planting, and pruning with a judicious hand. He learned how to transplant trees in the springtime, if the soil was retentive and dense, or how to do it in the autumn, if the soil was loose and dry. He learned how to stake and drape the apricots in order to save them from wind, how to cultivate citruses in the Orangery, how to smoke the mildew off the gooseberries, how to amputate diseased limbs from the figs, and when not to bother. He learned how to strip the tattered bark from an old tree and take the thing right down to the ground, without sentimentality or remorse, in order to demand life back out of it for a dozen more seasons to come.

Henry learned much from his father, though he was ashamed of the man, who he felt was weak. If Mr. Whittaker truly was the Apple Magus, Henry reasoned, then why had the king’s admiration not been parlayed into wealth? Stupider men were rich—many of them. Why did the Whittakers still live with pigs, when just nearby were the great wide green lawns of the palace, and the pleasant houses on Maid of Honor Row, where the queen’s servants slept on French linens? Henry, climbing to the top of an elaborate garden wall one day, had spied a lady, dressed in an ivory gown, practicing manège on her immaculate white horse while a servant played the violin to entertain her. People were living like this, right there in Richmond, while the Whittakers did not even have a floor.

But Henry’s father never fought for anything fine. He’d earned the same paltry wage for thirty years, and had never once disputed it, nor had he ever complained about working outdoors in the foulest of weather for so long that his health had been ruined by it. Henry’s father had chosen the careful­lest steps through life, particularly when interacting with his betters—and he regarded everyone as his better. Mr. Whittaker made a point never to offend, and never to take advantage, even when advantages may have been ripe for plucking. He told his son, “Henry, do not be bold. You can butcher the sheep only once. But if you are careful, you can shear the sheep every year.”

With a father so forceless and complacent, what could Henry expect to receive out of life, aside from whatever he could clutch at with his own hands? A man should profit, Henry started telling himself when he was only thirteen years old. A man should butcher a sheep every day.

But where to find the sheep?

That’s when Henry Whittaker started stealing.

By the mid-1770s, the gardens at Kew had become a botanical Noah’s Ark, with thousands of specimens already in the collection, and new consign­ments arriving weekly—hydrangeas from the Far East, magnolias from China, ferns from the West Indies. What’s more, Kew had a new and ambitious superintendent: Sir Joseph Banks, fresh from his triumphant voyage around the world as chief botanist for Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour. Banks, who worked without salary (he was interested only in the glory of the British Empire, he said, although others suggested he might be just the slightest bit interested in the glory of Sir Joseph Banks), was now collecting plants with furious passion, committed to creating a truly spectacular national garden.

Oh, Sir Joseph Banks! That beautiful, whoring, ambitious, competitive adventurer! The man was everything Henry’s father was not. By the age of twenty-three, a drenching inheritance of six thousand pounds a year had made Banks one of the richest men in England. Arguably, he was also the handsomest. Banks could easily have spent his life in idle luxury, but instead he sought to become the boldest of botanical explorers—a vocation he took up without sacrificing a bit of flash or glamour. Banks had paid for a good deal of Captain Cook’s first expedition out of his own pocket, which had afforded him the right to bring along on that cramped ship two black man-servants, two white manservants, a spare botanist, a scientific secretary, two artists, a draftsman, and a pair of Italian greyhounds. During his adventure, Banks had seduced Tahitian queens, danced naked with savages on beaches, and watched young heathen girls having their buttocks tattooed in the moonlight. He had brought home with him to England a Tahitian man named Omai, to be kept as a pet, and he had also brought home nearly four thousand plant specimens—almost half of which the world of science had never before seen. Sir Joseph Banks was the most famous and dashing man in England, and Henry admired him enormously.

But he stole from him anyway.

It was merely that the opportunity was there, and that the opportunity was so obvious. Banks was known in scientific circles not merely as a great botanical collector, but also as a great botanical hoarder. Gentlemen of botany, in those polite days, generally shared their discoveries with each other freely, but Banks shared nothing. Professors, dignitaries, and collectors came to Kew from all over the world with the reasonable hope of obtaining seeds and cuttings, as well as samples from Banks’s vast herbarium—but Banks turned them all away.

Young Henry admired Banks for a hoarder (he would not have shared his own treasure, either, had he possessed any) but he soon saw opportunity in the angered faces of these thwarted international visitors. He would wait for them just outside the grounds of Kew, catching the men as they were leaving the gardens, sometimes catching them cursing Sir Joseph Banks in French, German, Dutch, or Italian. Henry would approach, ask the men what samples they desired, and promise to procure those samples by week’s end. He always carried a paper tablet and a carpenter’s pencil with him; if the men did not speak English, Henry had them draw pictures of what they needed. They were all excellent botanical artists, so their needs were easily made clear. Late in the evenings, Henry would sneak into the greenhouses, dart past the workers who kept the giant stoves going through the cold nights, and steal plants for profit.

He was just the boy for the task. He was good at plant identification, expert at keeping cuttings alive, a familiar enough face around the gardens not to arouse suspicion, and adept at covering his tracks. Best of all, he did not seem to require sleep. He worked all day with his father in the orchards, and then stole all night—rare plants, precious plants, lady’s slippers, tropical orchids, carnivorous marvels from the New World. He kept all the botanical drawings that the distinguished gentlemen made for him, too, and studied those drawings until he knew every stamen and petal of every plant the world desired.

Like all good thieves, Henry was scrupulous about his own security. He trusted nobody with his secret, and buried his earnings in several caches throughout the gardens at Kew. He never spent a farthing of it. He let his silver rest dormant in the soil, like good rootstock. He wanted that silver to accumulate, until it could burst forth hugely, and buy him the right to become a rich man.

Within a year Henry had several regular clients. One of them, an old orchid cultivator from the Paris Botanical Gardens, gave the boy perhaps the first pleasing compliment of his life: “You’re a useful little fingerstink, aren’t you?” Within two years, Henry was driving a vigorous trade, selling plants not only to serious men of botany, but also to a circle of wealthy Lon­don gentry, who longed for exotic specimens for their own collections. Within three years, he was illicitly shipping plant samples to France and Italy, expertly packing the cuttings in moss and wax to ensure they survived the journey.

At the end, however, after three years of this felonious enterprise, Henry Whittaker was caught—and by his own father.

Mr. Whittaker, normally a deep sleeper, had noticed his son leaving the house one night after midnight and, heartsick with a father’s instinctive suspicion, had followed the boy to the greenhouse and seen the selecting, the thieving, the expert packing. He recognized immediately the illicit care of a robber.

Henry’s father was not a man who had ever beat his sons, even when they deserved it (and they frequently did deserve it), and he didn't beat Henry that night, either. Nor did he confront the boy directly. Henry didn't even realize he’d been caught. No, Mr. Whittaker did something far worse. First thing the next morning, he asked for a personal audience with Sir Joseph Banks. It was not often that a poor fellow like Whittaker could request a word with a gentleman like Banks, but Henry’s father had earned just enough respect around Kew in thirty years of tireless labor to warrant the intrusion, if only just this once. He was an old and poor man, indeed, but he was also the Apple Magus, the savior of the king’s favorite tree, and that title bought him entrance.

Mr. Whittaker came at Banks almost upon his knees, head bowed, penitent as a saint. He confessed the shaming story about his son, along with his suspicion that Henry had probably been stealing for years. He offered his resignation from Kew as punishment, if the boy would only be spared arrest or harm. The Apple Magus promised to take his family far away from Rich­mond, and see to it that Kew, and Banks, would never again be sullied by the Whittaker name.

Banks—impressed by the orchardman’s heightened sense of honor— refused the resignation, and sent for young Henry personally. Again, this was an unusual occurrence. If it was rare for Sir Joseph Banks to meet with an illiterate plantsman in his study, it was exceedingly rare for him to meet with an illiterate plantsman’s thieving sixteen-year-old son. Probably, he ought to have simply had the boy arrested. But theft was a hanging crime, and children far younger than Henry got the rope—and for far less serious infractions. While the attack on his collection was galling, Banks felt sympathy enough for the father to investigate the problem himself before summoning the bailiff.

The problem, when it walked into Sir Joseph Banks’s study, turned out to be a spindly, ginger-haired, tight-lipped, milky-eyed, broad-shouldered, sunken-chested youth, with pale skin already rubbed raw by too much exposure to wind, rain, and sun. The boy was underfed but tall, and his hands were large; Banks saw that he might grow into a big man someday, if he could get a proper meal.

Henry did not know precisely why he had been summoned to Banks’s offices but he had sufficient brains to suspect the worst, and he was much alarmed. Only through sheer thick-sided stubbornness could he enter Banks’s study without visibly trembling.

God’s love, though, what a beautiful study it was! And how splendidly Joseph Banks was dressed, in his glossy wig and gleaming black velvet suit, polished shoe buckles and white stockings. Henry had no sooner passed through the door than he had already priced out the delicate mahogany writing desk, covetously scanned the fine collection boxes stacked on every shelf, and glanced with admiration at the handsome portrait of Captain Cook on the wall. Mother of dead dogs, the mere frame for that portrait must have cost ninety pounds!

Unlike his father, Henry did not bow in Banks’s presence, but stood before the great man, looking him straight in the eye. Banks, who was seated, permitted Henry to stand in silence, perhaps waiting for a confession or a plea. But Henry neither confessed nor pleaded, nor hung his head in shame, and if Sir Joseph Banks thought Henry Whittaker was fool enough to speak first under such hot circumstances, then he did not know Henry Whittaker.

Therefore, after a long silence, Banks commanded, “Tell me, then—why should I not see you hang at Tyburn?”

So that’s it, Henry thought. I’m snapped. Nonetheless, the boy grappled for a plan. He needed to find a tactic, and he needed to find it in one quick and slender moment. He had not spent his life being beaten senseless by his older brothers to have learned nothing about fighting. When a bigger and stronger opponent has landed the first blow, you have but one chance to swing back before you will be pummeled into clay, and you’d best come back with something unexpected.

“Because I’m a useful little fingerstink,” Henry said.

Banks, who enjoyed unusual incidents, barked with surprised laughter. “I confess that I don’t see the use of you, young man. All you have done for me is to rob me of my hard-won treasure.”

It wasn't a question, but Henry answered it nonetheless.

“I might’ve trimmed a bit,” he said.

“You don’t deny this?”

“All the braying in the world won’t change it, do it?”

Again, Banks laughed. He may have thought the boy was putting on a show of false courage, but Henry’s courage was real. As was his fear. As was his lack of penitence. For the whole of his life, Henry would always find penitence weak.

Banks changed tack. “I must say, young man, that you are a crowning distress to your father.”

“And him to me, sir,” Henry fired back.

Once more, the surprised bark of laughter from Banks. “Is he, then? What harm has that good man ever done to you?”

“Made me poor, sir,” Henry said. Then, suddenly realizing everything, Henry added, “It were him, weren’t it? Who peached me over to you?”

“Indeed it was. He’s an honorable soul, your father.”

Henry shrugged. “Not to me, eh?”

Banks took this in and nodded, generously conceding the point. Then he asked, “To whom have you been selling my plants?”

Henry ticked off the names on his fingers: “Mancini, Flood, Willink, LeFavour, Miles, Sather, Evashevski, Feuerle, Lord Lessig, Lord Garner—”

Banks cut him off with a wave. He stared at the boy with open astonishment. Oddly, if the list had been more modest, Banks might have been angrier. But these were the most esteemed botanical names of the day. A few of them Banks called friends. How had the boy found them? Some of these men hadn't been to England in years. The child must be exporting. What kind of campaign had this creature been running under his nose?

“How do you even know how to handle plants?” Banks asked.

“I always knowed plants, sir, for my whole life. It’s like I knowed it all beforehand.”

“And these men, do they pay you?”

“Or they don’t get their plants, do they?” Henry said.

“You must be earning well. Indeed, you must have accumulated quite a pile of money in the past years.”

Henry was too cunning to answer this.

“What have you done with the money you’ve earned, young man?” Banks pushed on. “I can’t say you’ve invested it in your wardrobe. Without a doubt, your earnings belong to Kew. So where is it all?”

“Gone, sir.”

“Gone where?”

“Dice, sir. I have a weakness of the gambling, see.”

That may or may not have been true, Banks thought. But the boy certainly had as much nerve as any two-footed beast he had ever encountered. Banks was intrigued. He was a man, after all, who kept a heathen for a pet, and who—to be honest—enjoyed the reputation of being half heathen himself. His station in life required that he at least purport to admire gentility, but secretly he preferred a bit of wildness. And what a little wild cockerel was Henry Whittaker! Banks was growing less inclined by the moment to hand over this curious item of humanity to the constables.

Henry, who saw everything, saw something happening in Banks’s face— a softening of countenance, a blooming curiosity, a sliver of a chance for his life to be saved. Intoxicated with a compulsion for self-preservation, the boy vaulted into that sliver of hope, one last time.

“Don’t put me to hang, sir,” Henry said. “You’ll regret it that you did.”

“What do you propose I do with you, instead?”

“Put me to use.”

“Why should I?” asked Banks.

“Because I’m better than anyone.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 161 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 9, 2013

    This book was 520 pages of awesome. Could not put it down. The

    This book was 520 pages of awesome. Could not put it down. The research that went in to this book plus the obvious intelligence of the writer made this a wondrous read from start to finish. I have been a lover of books for greater then 50 years now and am putting this in my top ten of all time favorites.

    15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2013

    beautiful and haunting

    This amazing work stays with you past the very last line
    Beautiful, haunting and satisfying the reader enters the antisceptic world of science and learns of natural selection only to find out that each amazing discovery via Alma's eyes/work is truly a discovery and disection of the human heart! Superb and highly recommended!

    15 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    A lovely tale spanning beyond a century. Beautifully written, re

    A lovely tale spanning beyond a century. Beautifully written, researched with the most unique, in depth characters I've seen in so long.  Wonderful!

    15 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I was angry at this book when I was done reading. It hooks you b

    I was angry at this book when I was done reading. It hooks you because you keep expecting a transformative, game-changing experience for the main character but instead you get more of the same depressing, meaningless nothing. 

    11 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    I have to agree with another review that stated they only got th

    I have to agree with another review that stated they only got through it because they had spent money purchasing it! I had to struggle to get through this book even though I am an avid reader. I found it dull & boring. One of the worst books I've read in a long time.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2013

    I enjoyed this novel very much for several reasons. I enjoy hist

    I enjoyed this novel very much for several reasons. I enjoy historical fiction and also I love horticultural history as well as the period of time which this story took place. I would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy these qualities in a novel. If you are looking for a quick light read-this isn't the book for you.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2013

    I am in awe of anyone who writes a novel, because I know how muc

    I am in awe of anyone who writes a novel, because I know how much work it takes. And I bought this book with great expectations. But I really did not like it. As others have said, most of the interesting part was in the first few chapters. I only finished it because I had spent money on it. I thought the main character was not realistic and that the things she did in the book were not realistic for a person in her time. None of the characters seemed real to me, so I didn't really care much what happened to them. Frankly, in spite of all the research that obviously was done in order to write it, the book didn't seem very smart.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    Highly recommended

    This novel will appeal to readers interested in horticulture, history of science and exploration, women's issues and psychology. The plot is detailed, descriptions exotic and vivid, characters memorable. This is an involving read, excellent for book clubs.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2013

    Reading this was a little like watching moss grow. The author w

    Reading this was a little like watching moss grow. The author was very ambitious in the scope of the story, but it would have been more satisfying to have had a bit more dimension to the characters and not quite so many locales. I am an avid reader and was looking forward to this book after reading several good reviews, but it was very tough to slog through and the characters never grabbed me.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2013

    Wonderful

    Her best book to date and hard to put down. Her talent is rare and her research of life in the nineteenth centry is remarkable. Buy this and share with someone you care about.

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2013

    I do not understand how this book is on the best selling list. I

    I do not understand how this book is on the best selling list. I could not decide if it was a science, travel or historical fiction book. One of the strangest books we have ever read.  The characters are so dysfunctional and odd. Many people struggled to get through it because it was so boring.  Don't waste your money. Too bizarre. What was the author thinking when she wrote this?

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Loved begining--not so much after

    Begins as 19th century adventure story but altimately becomes a repetitive saga of alma's joyless sexual frustration. I read it because it was on nyt top 100--why?

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2013

    I was very disappointed with this book. I found it very interest

    I was very disappointed with this book. I found it very interesting in the beginning, but soon went down hill with the main character's obsession with her body. I

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 1, 2013

    Not good

    I did not read "Eat,Pray,Love." I did see the movie, and thought I would like this book. I thought wrong. It was very tedious.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2014

    What a waste of time. Only continued to plod through this predi

    What a waste of time. Only continued to plod through this predicable and loathsome tome because I had spent the money and was hopeful something interesting would take place. After 444 pages Alma has a encounter that made no sense. The characters were underdeveloped and uninteresting. My recommendation is to read anything else!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 31, 2014

    Signature of All Things - 3 stars After starting out with such h

    Signature of All Things - 3 stars
    After starting out with such high expectations, I finished this book with mixed feelings. The scientific writing was great! For those of us who are science geeks, but whose knowledge lies in other fields, the taste of botany was informative! I felt that though there was excessive text about her father, Alma was well-developed as a character. However, there was way too much continuing emphasis on her and her husband’s sexual proclivities, and this detracted from what would otherwise have been a extrraordinary book about a pioneering female scientist. This book was good, but could have been so much better.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 27, 2014

    This books is interesting, boring and very long, all at the same

    This books is interesting, boring and very long, all at the same time. It could have used some strong editing. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Loved it. Recommended it to my friends.

    What a strong woman for her times. I learned so many fascinating things about plants, places, people and an insight into another period of history.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2014

    Faison278@gmail.com

    Add me plz

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2014

    Content alert

    Deleted for sexually explit content. Up until that point i was enjoying the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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