Book Club Discussion: The Signature of All Things

Welcome to the Book Club discussion for The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Below is a list of discussion questions to get the conversation started. We are excited to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. We’ve added our thoughts for each question as well. Feel free to answer all the questions, or pick and choose a few questions to discuss!

1. The Signature of All Things takes as its first focus not the book’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, but her rough-and-tumble father, Henry. Why do you think Elizabeth Gilbert made this choice in her narration, and why are the first fifty pages essential to the rest of the novel?

I flew through the first half of this book and the first 50 pages chronicling the adventures of Alma’s father were a big part of this. I absolutely loved this part of the book. Gilbert seemed to intend that these first 50 pages featuring the adventures and travels of Alma’s father function in stark contrast to the cloistered life of Alma, who rarely strayed a few miles from the Philadelphia estate for most of her life. It further emphasized the fact that, despite being curious and clever like her father, she was only able to explore the world in microcosm on the grounds of the estate.

2. Alma Whittaker grows up in the richest family in Philadelphia. In what ways does her father’s fortune set her free? In what ways is it a prison?

Her father’s fortune allows Alma the freedom to learn and explore. Since she does not have to work like many young people did during this time, her main focus is expanding her brain and satiating her endless curiosity. Despite the wealth, Alma never strays far from home. I felt that it was a bit unclear why the family never traveled. It seems as though they could have easily done so. Her father’s decision to remain sequestered on the estate forces Alma to live in a very small world, with only her books as a means to explore the world beyond the walls.

3. Alma’s husband, Ambrose Pike, offers her a marriage filled with deep respect, spiritual love, intellectual adventure-and positively no sex. Should she have been contented with this arrangement?

I don’t think she should have settled for the arrangement, particularly because there was a clear miscommunication going into the marriage. It doesn’t seem fair to ask that Alma be contented with the situation just because everything else was so great. Alma’s sexuality is clearly a large part of who she is and was one of the main things she was looking forward to if a romance ever did come her way. I was actually quite surprised when she back out after finding out Ambrose did not want to be intimate. I thought for sure she would settle for the situation minus the sex.

4. What did you think of Alma’s decision to go to Tahiti?

As far as the storyline goes, I understand why the author had her go there but I did not agree with Alma’s choice to do so. It seemed like weird way to gain closure on the situation. I would even argue that she did not get full closure, though the book made it seem that way. Her time in Tahiti was my least favorite part of the novel and was difficult for me to get through.

5. Alma loved mosses and Ambrose loved orchids, how did their botanical favorites relate to their characters?

I really loved this dichotomy. Alma has a revelatory moment and mosses become her passion. Much like Alma, mosses are slow and steady, not shifting much over the course of many years. I felt that this mirrored Alma’s stasis as she stayed inside the walls of her childhood home. In order to see and understand the complexity of mosses you had too look closely. Similarly, Alma is quite private and keeps much of her complex thinking to herself, unsure of how to tell others how she feels. Ambrose is quite the opposite. Like an orchid, he is beautiful, bright and lively. He seems to wear his heart on his sleeve and offer his complex thoughts and opinions to anyone who asks. His one secret, his homosexuality could perhaps be compared to the manner in which orchids rarely bloom, something he was never able to fully unveil until he traveled to Tahiti.

Share your comments below!

Explore further: Author interview! 
Questions by: Hello Book Lover and Penguin Random House

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