Having thoroughly enjoyed and been impressed by Elizabeth Gilbert’s wit and story-telling gifts in her previous work, I held my breath wondering what she would do with a historical novel. I can breathe deeply now. The characters spring fully formed from the page, immersed in all the themes of early 19th-century life—poverty, the quest for knowledge (and wealth), art and craftsmanship, sea travel and trade, Calvinism, tropical botany, evolution, the class structure, abolition, and spiritualism. The Signature of All Things (Viking, $28.95) is a gripping, generational saga of parents and daughters; a sweeping, surprising, deeply engrossing, historical adventure and exploration of scientific and personal discovery; but primarily, it is the life of Alma Whittaker, privileged and educated daughter of a former thief and extraordinarily successful self-made businessman, as she becomes his heir and a gifted botanist and explorer in her own right. Unreservedly my favorite book of the year.
Alice McDermott’s wise and tender novel, Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), is the distillation of a woman’s life from childhood to old age. We first meet Marie as she sits on the stoop of her Brooklyn house waiting for her father to get home from work, and later come to see how her middle-class Irish-Catholic family forms the core of her being. Moving among various key points of her life—early friendship, first love, first job, deaths of loved ones, raising a family—we witness the formation of her character as the world she knows changes around her. McDermott elegantly evinces the joys and heartbreaks of family and community, capturing the wonder and strangeness of a seemingly ordinary life.