The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love wasn't our cup of tea, but The Signature of All Things is another beast entirely.

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This is a beautiful, sprawling, luscious novel telling the epic life story of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, a botanist and pharmaceutical magnate. She grows up cloistered in the family estate, and becomes a botanist herself, fascinated by… mosses. It certainly doesn’t sound like the recipe for a page-turner, but we tore through 500 pages in no time, totally engrossed by the historical minutiae that Gilbert effortlessly weaves into the story.

We won’t give a blow by blow account of the plot, but at its most stripped back, it is simply the story of ambitious, plain Alma, in all its intellectual and romantic glory. The backdrop is Philadelphia, London, Peru, Amsterdam, Tahiti and more; this is a richly detailed historical tale of adventure, desire and love.

We’ll be honest: The book is really only (very) obliquely related to Southeast Asia, thanks to a belated, wonderful cameo by Alfred Russel Wallace, one of our favourite Southeast Asian historical figures, in Amsterdam. Alma’s scientific work eventually took her deep into the field of evolution, so she comes to read Wallace’s work about natural selection and invites him to visit her in her senior years. (Wallace theorised about the different flora and fauna between the ecozones of Asia and Wallacea, a transitional zone between Asia and Australia; he gave his name to the Wallace Line that divides the two.)

Wallace wrote The Malay Archipelago (another must-read), and lived in Indonesia's Sulawesi (Celebes) for years as he developed his theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin. Some argue Darwin poached his ideas, though this doesn’t really pan out, and indeed Wallace was a pall-bearer at his funeral. Alma calls Wallace “a prince of science!” and at the end of her life, summons him to Amsterdam. We loved seeing him appear in fiction, and have him confirm that Alma, at least fictionally, was a third person to have developed a theory of evolution.

Read this, if you are a Wallace fan, even though he only appears at the end. Or read it if you have a thirst for history, strong women, for science, or for seeing the world when colonialism was taking root and starting to shape the political boundaries of the modern world.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

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Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

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Sarong Party Girls
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By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

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By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

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Many Lives
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Sightseeing
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Thai Street Food
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The Beach
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By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
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The Windup Girl
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Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
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The Quiet American
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The Refugees
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The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

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The Sympathizer
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By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

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General