This was an immensely frustrating book because of the way it's written. It's a character-driven book, which isn't a bad thing; character-driven books can be extremely good, such as How to Start a Fire, which I read recently. They can be absolutely enthralling, because you get to see why things happen because of the ways the characters are. This book wasn't enthralling. It was, in fact, mostly mind-numbingly boring. Every now and then a few pages of good character development and dialogue and action (not like swordfights, but just interaction) would come up--but then it was right back to exceedingly dull. Why? Because nothing happens in this book for the first five hundred pages; then there are approximately seventy-five pages of plot, which emerge from precisely nowhere, and then it's back to boredom until the end.
Gilbert's main character, Alma Whittaker, finds her calling studying mosses even though all she wants in life is to give a guy a blowjob. To this end, Gilbert spends pretty much the entire book describing how Alma works with mosses. She eventually meets a guy and marries him, hoping to finally give the blowjob she's been longing for her entire life, only to find out that he doesn't want to have sex with her. She sends him off to Tahiti to manage her family's vanilla plantation because if they can't have sex, she doesn't want to be with him. He dies. Her father, on his deathbed, demands to know why the guy married her in the first place. Alma sets off to find out. She never does. Along the way, though, she does manage to give that blowjob she's always wanted to deliver, and then goes on to discover evolution.
There's some beautiful description in here, but beautiful description does not a strong book make. I remember taking a course in college where we read War and Peace, and my professor warned us that we'd have to endure a twelve-page description of an oak tree. Anyone who's actually read War and Peace knows he's lying (the oak tree passage is one lengthy paragraph), but if he'd said the same thing about mosses in The Signature of All Things, he would have been dead on. It feels like Gilbert really researched for this book, which is all fine and dandy, but then felt the need to shove every bit of research directly onto the page instead of using it "behind the scenes" to craft what would have still been a well-researched, but much more readable, novel.
Overall? Snore fest.
1.5 stars out of 5.