It’s been a long time since I read a novel with as deeply developed a character as Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. It is easy to feel that Alma is as real — if not more so — than some of the real-life characters in the novel. Then again, The Signature of All Things is all Alma’s story, from birth to the brink of her death in old age, so it is important that she be interesting enough to carry us through the 500+ pages.
Alma’s life spans the nineteenth century. She is born into a wealthy, immigrant Pennsylvanian family. Her English father is an uneducated but highly resourceful merchant of medicinal plants. Her mother is a member of a family of famous Dutch botanists. Alma and her adopted sister Prudence are given spectacular classical educations and encouraged to precociousness. But whereas Prudence is beautiful and draws male attention, Alma, we are constantly reminded, is not. No suitors come calling for her, particularly the one man she hopes will return her affection but never does. Gilbert makes such a point of letting us know how ugly and unattractive Alma is that it made me quite sad for her. Continue reading