tl;dr: This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
Warning: a few very mild semi-spoilers ahead. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider them spoilers myself. But I know some people don’t like to know any details about a book before they read it.
As a reader, when you open a book, and these are the first two sentences, you know you’re in good hands:
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.
I love that opening. That’s how we meet our protagonist, the daughter of a rich Philadelphia botanist and merchant. Alma Whittaker grows up to become a botanist herself. The book tells the story of her remarkable life (and in an extended flashback, her father’s life before she was born).
One of the fun aspects of the book, especially for a scientist reader, are the walk-on parts for real scientists, like Joseph Banks. More broadly, Gilbert clearly did a ton of historical research for this. It’s a real achievement that she uses it so well. With many historical novels, you find yourself wondering why the author didn’t just write a history instead of historical fiction (at least, that’s been my experience). As if the author thinks historical accuracy is somehow a substitute for a good story, well-drawn characters, and good writing. Not so here. The history fleshes out Alma Whittaker’s world, but make no mistake, it’s Alma Whittaker’s world. She, and her relationships with the major figures in her life, are front and center. There was only one place, near the end, where I felt like the story was paused briefly for an unnecessary information dump. But that’s probably just because I was already very familiar with the information in question.
At the end, Alma is inserted into the periphery of a major scientific event, in a way that scientist readers in particular will find fun. Indeed, it’s almost too fun–it skirts the edge of turning into fan fiction (without ever tipping over the edge, I don’t think). I can’t say much more without giving anything away. Let’s just say this bit of the book can be read as an interesting exercise in counterfactual history.
The question of how scientific history might have turned out differently isn’t the only big question the book raises. The book touches on issues ranging from what makes curiosity-driven scientific research worth doing (as opposed to mere self-indulgence), to how women can (or can’t) make places for themselves in a man’s world, to what we owe to those close to us, to what makes life worth living. I liked how those big issues just came up naturally in the course of Alma’s life. You never feel like the plot or the characters were designed so as to Make A Point (in contrast to another novel featuring scientists that I read recently).
The writing is fabulous. It reads like Jane Austen. Indeed, “Jane Austen with scientists” would be a good elevator pitch for this book.* This book has maybe the best characterization of any book I’ve ever read. 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. You’re never taken out of the story by the thought that “She’d never do that!” And Alma Whittaker has some traits that most every scientist shares, so I think she’ll come off as an especially sympathetic character for a scientist reader.
In conclusion, I should note that I don’t ordinarily like this sort of book at all. “Life story of invented random person” just isn’t my thing. But having a main character who’s a botanist and who sometimes interacts with real scientists hooked me, and once I was hooked I couldn’t put the book down. The Signature Of All Things is beach reading for smart people. You should totally read it.
*That’s why I gave it to my wife to read. We don’t usually like the same books, but she’s a huge Austen fan.