Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures. Harper Collins, 2009. ISBN 978-0007178377 352 pp. $
Chevalier’s historical novel is a fictionalization of the circumstances surrounding the first recorded discovery of plesiosaur and ichthyosaurus fossils in Lyme, England–both found by a working class girl named Mary Anning, and credited, initially, to the men the fossils were sold to, before they sold them to museums. Because Mary is A. female and B. working class and C. uneducated, she doesn’t get credit for her work until much championing from a variety of sources.
Mary is befriended by spinster Elizabeth Philpot, recently transplanted from London to Lyme with her sisters when her brother marries, displacing them from the family’s home. Though Mary is just a girl with an eye for finding “curies” Elizabeth senses a kinship, and together they fossil hunt–Mary sells many of her finds as her contribution to her impoverished family’s welfare, while Elizabeth collects and catalogs her specimens.
Narrated by the dual protagonists who are “remarkable creatures” themselves, chapters alternate point of view, beginning with Mary, who, struck by lightning as an infant, relates other moments of “lightning strike” in her life, including fossil discoveries and falling in love. Her vernacular sets her voice apart from the more educated Elizabeth. Mary’s reflections are more action driven, while Elizabeth pontificates on how each individual “leads” with a different part of their body (for her, it’s her prominent jawbone that causes someone to slight her at a ball, while for Mary, it’s her keen eyes) and the difference between fossil hunters (like herself and Mary) and fossil gatherers (like the gentleman on whose bluffs their discoveries are made).
The characterizations are strong, and complex–like Molly, Mary’s mother, who is a shrewd bargainer and smarter than she appears, and Collector Curry, their nickname for a lazy man with no moral compass who is all too happy to lay claim to another’s finds (he gets his payback though, and it’s a bitch.)
One frustration with the book is the timeline. It’s clear Mary is a child at the beginning, and more than 20 years pass, but no dates are given. The author’s note at the end says some liberties were taken with the dates, which is fine–but more of a sense of passing time would have been helpful. A list of further reading at the end include primary sources and indicate meticulous research.
Ultimately, the slow pace and repetitive elements outweigh the fascinating story of how women changed the field of geology, the details of how fossils are excavated and various methods of finding anomalies in a beach strewn with pebbles. The book’s themes of gender roles and science versus religion become repetitive and heavy handed, even against the backdrop of the friendship–and falling out over a man–between the two women.
Details of daily life provide a glimpse into what it meant to belong to the various classes of citizenry in the 1800s, and the sense of rigidity of not being able to rise above one’s station in life may be a very foreign one to American audiences. At times, the book has the feel of a regency romance, as Elizabeth’s youngest sister Margaret attempts to hook a mate, and Mary requires a chaperone (a frenemy!) when fossil hunting with an Oxford professor twice her age, to ensure all propriety is observed.