Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

GENRE: historical fiction

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world. Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils. The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and jealousy.

I confess that I was a bit sceptical about the book before I started reading it. I am not particularly interested in fossils. In fact, I’ve never given them much thought. I do like to read about the way people made the first discoveries that are so obvious to us today. I like the philosophy behind natural history, how people’s minds gradually changed and came to the knowledge we have about the world today. It was not easy, it was a struggle, and the likes of Darwin and his colleagues had a hard time when they first spoke out loud about their ideas that were downright preposterous in their life time. So, since I like this aspect of natural history, and since this is Tracy Chevalier, one of my favourite authors, I gave this book a try.

This novel exceeded my expectations. I thought it was going to be boring and unimaginative, but it sucked me right in. I simply could not put it down, which is amazing, considering it’s about fossils of all things. I knew nothing about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot beforehand, but now it seems as if I’ve known them for a long time. They’re really well-written, rounded characters, with clear personalities. The novel alternates between Mary’s and Elizabeth’s POVs, and the transition is always clear. Chevalier really made them both very individual characters. Although most of the novels takes place on the beaches of Lyme Regis, with Mary and Elizabeth searching for fossils, there’s still a lot going on, especially inside Mary’s and Elizabeth’s souls. Their struggles, heartbreaks, even envy, seem very vivid. Their stories are remarkable, and they are quite remarkable, especially Mary Anning. It was not easy to be a woman in those times, especially if you were a woman who was a revolutionary fossil-hunter and who educated men on the subject. Of course you were frowned upon, but Mary was a really strong woman. I loved Elizabeth just as much. They’re not perfect. They’re real women, and Chevalier presented them as such.

Chevalier managed to portray the soul of the era, especially the scientific soul, and the clash between science and religion. People who like to read about things like that will have fun reading this book. And you’ll learn something about fossils in an attractive way, as they are presented in a very natural, fun way, and you’ll learn about two remarkable creatures: Mary Anning and her friend, Elizabeth Philpot. There's romance, there's history, there's science and friendship. A really interesting and enjoyable combination.


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