Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Reviewed by Meagan

Published: 2009

It's about: Remarkable Creatures is a fictional account of the friendship between two real-life historical figures who lived in the coastal town of Lyme Regis at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Philpot is a middle-class spinster who moves to Lyme Regis with her two unmarried sisters. Used to the richness of London life, Elizabeth struggles to find a hobby to occupy her time on the comparatively provincial Dorset coast. Walking on the beach one day, she discovers a strange rock and learns that it is a fossil. Excited by her find, she continues searching and collecting. She soon meets Mary Anning, a working-class girl famous in the town for having survived being hit by lighting as an infant. Mary is especially good at locating fossils and sells several of them as curiosities or 'curies' to visitors, thus becoming the subject of the tongue twister, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore." The two women quickly become great friends, despite their different classes. Throughout the course of the novel Mary discovers the first complete fossil skeletons of ancient dinosaurs, and Elizabeth becomes known for her expertise in collecting and classifying the fossils of ancient fish, as they gain notoriety, they help each other as best they can to navigate a scientific world ruled by often patronising men to receive credit for their remarkable discoveries.

I thought: Despite several recommendations, I'd never actually read a book by Chevalier, but I picked up this one at a 3-for-2 sale because I had been struck by a sentence in a review I had come across just a day or two before which said,"The holes in our knowledge of Mary Anning are big enough to drive a truck through – or build a novel in." This line so cleverly seemed to capture the foundation I find essential in every successfully crafted historical fiction piece that I've read, so I decided to give it a try, and I was glad I did.

Although the fossil hunting which comprises a large portion of this novel is not something I'd usually be interested in, it is the action by which all other aspects of this novel are driven. The simple pleasure in discovery that comes from hunting fossils is beautifully expressed in its own right, but Mary and Elizabeth's hunting also serves as the vehicle for an exploration of the gender, class, and religious issues which were trademarks of the period. As Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot sift through the rocks and dirt of the Dorset beaches, Chevalier takes the opportunity to dig into contemporary perceptions of the role of women in academic study and greater society, the expectations of the lower and middle classes, and the birth of the theory of evolution in an almost exclusively Creationist society. And just as unearthing the fossil skeletons takes effort and care, Chevalier tackles these concepts in a slow, subtle way. A way which I found fascinating and very appropriate to the time period, but a way which some readers might find boring. There is no great love story in this novel; indeed, there is not really any great story in the sense of a sharp climax or shocking revelation. Instead, it is a story of two friends who lived and worked on the cusp of great scientific discovery, but because of the restrictions of their time, were limited in their participation and viewed as strange, yet nevertheless fought to break through those barriers.

Even in looking back on the period, the historical events embedded in this story may be seen as perhaps of passing interest, but are largely unremarkable for readers such as myself who don't possess a great understanding of, or love for, the sciences. However, Chevalier does a masterful job in reconstructing the mores of Regency England (even including some of the humor often found in Jane Austen's novels of the same period), thus creating an environment which allows the reader to appreciate just how remarkable these two women were in their time and place--and thus, by extension, are today.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin?

In between. I personally stuck it on my shelf, but again it may not be for everyone.

Reading Recommendations: Here's a short clip in which Tracy Chevalier describes where she got her inspiration for Remarkable Creatures and includes a piece on fossil hunting in Lyme Regis for those wanting some more background to the novel.

Also: the London National History Museum has several of the fossils Mary Anning discovered and some can be viewed on their website. I was lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibit while I was reading Remarkable Creatures and it was helpful to view the creatures described in the book as I was unfamiliar with these types of fossils.

Warnings: None.

Favorite excerpts:

Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once it was real....I feel an echo of the lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says, "Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach." That is why I am a hunter : to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day.

I have long noted that people tend to lead with one particular feature, a part of the face or body. My brother John, for instance, leads with his eyebrows....Frances has been the only Philpot sister to marry, and leads with her bosom - which I suppose explains that.