AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert's fiction have been waiting a long time. Gilbert became a phenomenon for her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. But Gilbert hasn't written fiction since the year 2000. Well, the wait is over. Her new novel is called "The Signature of All Things." And editor Lizzie Skurnick has a review.
LIZZIE SKURNICK, BYLINE: It's hard to describe this book without sounding like you're just free-associating. It covers subjects like how to smuggle plant clippings to foreign buyers; Captain Cook and how he was hacked to death; abolition, poverty, sodomy; what the Dutch serve at tea time; and a rugby-like women's-only Tahitian sport. But "The Signature of All Things" isn't confusing. It's revelatory.
Alma Whittaker is the worst kind of know-it-all, a kid who truly does know it all. She's the daughter of Henry Whittaker, a master of rare botanicals. Alma is raised by this old-school drug-baron father and a strict mother in rarefied 1800s Philadelphia. Their sprawling estate becomes her intellectual training ground - the library, the laboratory, the important minds who come to dinner. And then it shatters.
It turns out that Alma, who had been cultivated as carefully as one of her father's plants, is totally ignorant of the outside world. Chastened, afraid, but determined, she sets off on a journey that takes her as far as Tahiti and Holland, far beyond the moss colonies she studied on her father's estate.
There's this thing novelists tend to do - they tack on important moments in history thinking it'll give them depth, or else they over-research and the narrative suffers. Gilbert manages to combine the technical and cultural with a warm, funny wit that adds richness to both. And those who've snarked at her loopy spirituality - and I'm guilty - will be amused to find that all of the things that naysayers said to Gilbert, Alma says to her husband.
Wearing a penetrating intellect like a pair of no-nonsense shoes, Elizabeth Gilbert has written a delightful, overstuffed work that is surely one of the best of the year.
CORNISH: The book is called "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Our reviewer, Lizzie Skurnick, is the editor-in-chief of a publishing imprint called Lizzie Skurnick Books. And for more updates on books and authors, you can like NPR Books on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. That's @nprbooks.