Remarkable Creatures (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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Remarkable Creatures
Tracy Chevalier, 2010
pp. 320

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2010

By now, Tracy Chevalier has established her bona fides as one of the doyennes of historical fiction. She's widely praised for her skill in capturing the characters and nuanced customs of whatever era she writes about.

In Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier turns her eye to the tremulous babysteps of paleontology, the study of prehistoric life. This is the early 1800's, pre-Darwin, before the concept of extinction. What were these strange fossils...and where are the living creatures now? If they no longer exist...does that mean that God, who created them, decided to rid the world of them? Were they errors in His judgment? Such an idea was blasphemous.

Two unlikely, real-life heroines find themselves caught up in this controversial, new scientific field: Elizabeth Philpot, exiled to Lyme Regis from London, bookish, long-jawed, and overripe for marriage; and Mary Anning, a young girl from a poor family barely able to eke out a living in Lyme Regis. Together Elizabeth and Mary hunt fossils buried along the coastline, and over the years an unusual friendship forms and deepens.

Both class and sexism come into play. It is young Mary who uncovers something truly astonishing—the remains of huge creatures heretofore unknown. The novel revolves around how Mary finds her giant fossils, digs them out of rock, pieces them together, and sells them to men, who buy them cheap and resell them dear—thus earning themselves both a tidy profit and credit for "their" finds. Mary's role is dismissed, even denied: she is, after all, a mere girl...and of the wrong class.

Elizabeth, older and several rungs higher on the social ladder, sets out to rectify the injustice. Romance, jealosy, and estrangement juice up the story, making this a fun yet highly informative read. There's some detailed description about the difference between this fossil and that, but I found it fascinating. Even more fascinating is the fact that Mary and Elizabeth were real women with a real impact on scientific knowledge.

See our Reading Guide for Remarkable Creatures.

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