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Remarkable Creatures (Chevalier)

Remarkable Creatures 
Tracy Chevalier, 2010
Penguin Group USA
496 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780452296725


Summary 
A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place from bestselling author Tracy Chevalier.

From the moment she's struck by lightening as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"-and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.

Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally.

Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship. (From the publisher.)



About the Author 
Birth—October 19, 1962
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., Oberlin College (USA); M.A., University of
  East Anglia (UK)
Currently—lives in London, UK


Raised in Washington D.C., Tracy Chevalier moved to England in 1984 after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. Initially intending to attend one semester abroad, she studied for a semester and never returned. After working as a literary editor for several years, Chevalier chose to pursue her own writing career and in 1994, she graduated with a degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

The Virgin Blue (her first novel), was chosen by W. H. Smith for its Fresh Talent promotion in 1997. She lives in London with her husband and son and hopes to see all of Vermeer's thirty-five known paintings in her lifetime (thus far, she's seen twenty-eight of them). Tracy Chevalier first gained attention by imagining the answer to one of art history's small but intriguing questions: Who is the subject of Johannes Vermeer's painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring"?

It was a bold move on Chevalier's part to build a story around the somewhat mysterious 17th-century Dutch painter and his unassuming but luminous subject; but the author's purist approach helped set the tone. In an interview with her college's alumni magazine, she commented:

I decided early on that I wanted [Girl] to be a simple story, simply told, and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint. That may sound unbelievably pretentious, but I didn't mean it as "I can do Vermeer in words." I wanted to write it in a way that Vermeer would have painted: very simple lines, simple compositions, not a lot of clutter, and not a lot of superfluous characters.

Chevalier achieved her objective expertly, helped by the fact that she employed the famous Girl as narrator of the story. Sixteen-year-old Griet becomes a maid in Vermeer's tumultuous household, developing an apprentice relationship with the painter while drawing attention from other men and jealousy from women. Praise for the novel poured in: "Chevalier's exploration into the soul of this complex but naïve young woman is moving, and her depiction of 17th-century Delft is marvelously evocative," wrote the New York Times Book Review. The Wall Street Journal called it "vibrant and sumptuous."

Girl with a Pearl Earring was not Chevalier's first exploration of the past. In The Virgin Blue, her U.K.-published first novel (U.S. edition, 2003), her modern-day character Ella Turner goes back to 16th-century France in order to revisit her family history. As a result, she finds parallels between herself and a troubled ancestor — a woman whose fate had been unknown until Ella discovers it.

With 2001's Falling Angels, Chevalier — a former reference book editor who began her fiction career by enrolling in the graduate writing program at University of East Anglia — continued to tell stories of women in the past. But she has been open about the fact that compared to writing Girl with a Pearl Earring, the "nightmare" creating of her third novel was difficult and fraught with complications, even tears. The pressure of her previous success, coupled with a first draft that wasn't working out, made Chevalier want to abandon the effort altogether. Then, reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible led Chevalier to change her approach. "[Kingsolver] did such a fantastic job using different voices and I thought, with Falling Angels, I've told it in the wrong way," Chevalier told Bookpage magazine. "I wanted it to have lots of perspective."

With that, Chevalier began a rewrite of her tale about two families in the first decade of 20th-century London. With more than ten narrators (some more prominent than others), Falling Angels has perspective in spades and lots to maintain interest over its relatively brief span: a marriage in trouble, a girlhood friendship born at Highgate Cemetery, a woman's introduction to the suffragette movement. A spirited, fast-paced story, Falling Angels again earned critical praise. "This moving, bittersweet book flaunts Chevalier's gift for creating complex characters and an engaging plot," Book magazine concluded.

Chevalier continues to pursue her fascination with art and history in her fourth novel, on which she is currently at work. According to Oberlin Alumni Magazine, she is basing the book on the "Lady and the Unicorn" medieval tapestries that hang in Paris's Cluny Museum.

Extras
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Chevalier's interest in Vermeer extends beyond a fascination with one painting. "I have always loved Vermeer's paintings," Chevalier writes on her Web site. "One of my life goals is to view all thirty-five of them in the flesh. I've seen all but one — ‘Young Girl Reading a Letter' — which hangs in Dresden. There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them."

• Chevalier moved from the States to London in 1984. "I intended to stay six months," she writes. "I'm still here." She lives near Highgate Cemetery with her husband and son.

• The film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring was released 2003 with Scarlett Johansson in the role of Griet and Colin Firth playing Vermeer.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:

It's impossible to list just one! I would say more generally— books that I read when I was a girl, that showed me how different worlds can be brought to life for a reader. My aunt likes to quote that when I was young I once said I was never alone when I had a book to read. (I don't remember saying that, but my aunt isn't prone to lying.) Those companions would be books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series; Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; The Egypt Game by Zylpha Keatley Snyder; "The Dark Is Rising" series by Susan Cooper; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken plus subsequent books in that series; and of course The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

• Other favorite books include: Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), Alias Grace (Atwood), and Song of Solomon (Morrison).

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
Chevalier's newest is a flat historical whose familiar themes of gender inequality, class warfare and social power often overwhelm the story. Tart-tongued spinster Elizabeth Philpot meets young Mary Anning after moving from London to the coastal town of Lyme Regis. The two quickly form an unlikely friendship based on their mutual interest in finding fossils, which provides the central narrative as working-class Mary emerges from childhood to become a famous fossil hunter, with her friend and protector Elizabeth to defend her against the men who try to take credit for Mary's finds. Their friendship, however, is tested when Colonel Birch comes to Lyme to ask for Mary's help in hunting fossils and the two spinsters compete for his attention. While Chevalier's exploration of the plight of Victorian-era women is admirable, Elizabeth's fixation on her status as an unmarried woman living in a gossipy small town becomes monotonous, and Chevalier slows the story by dryly explaining the relative importance of different fossils. Chevalier's attempt to imagine the lives of these real historical figures makes them seem less remarkable than they are.
Publishers Weekly


In early 1800s England, unmarried women of the upper classes were often relegated to the fringes of society, where they could find a polite way to spend their days; those of the lower classes had even fewer options. This work, based on a true story, portrays two women from these diverse backgrounds who share a fascination with fossils. Mary Anning is an impoverished girl with a gift for finding prehistoric skeletons along the coast, which also interest genteel spinster Elizabeth Philpot. She recognizes Mary's talent as she also understands the enormous implications of the specimens uncovered, for this was before Darwin, when the concept of extinction was unknown, and it was blasphemous to consider that some of God's creatures may have been flawed. Over time, both women strive for scientific credibility, love, and financial stability, with varying degrees of success. Verdict: Superbly creating a unique setting, as she did in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier captures the atmosphere of a chilly, blustery coast and an oppressive social hierarchy in real Dickensian fashion. Readers of historical fiction will enjoy this fascinating tale of rustic paleontology. —Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.
Library Journal


More fact-based historical fiction from Chevalier: the vivid, rewarding tale of 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning. Before Darwin's findings rocked the world, a small group of scientists were already-in some people's view, blasphemously-questioning the age of the Earth, the finality of God's creation and the possibility of an ancient world before man. In young Mary's case, however, finding fossils quite simply keeps her family from the workhouse. Raised in Lyme Regis on the English coast, she's trained by her father to spot what they call "curies" (curiosities): ammonites, belemnites, fossilized fish on the beach and embedded in cliffs that the family sells to tourists during the summer. Paired with Mary's narrative is that of Elizabeth Philpot, dispatched with her two sisters from London to the coast when their brother marries. Elizabeth (also a historical figure, like most of the characters) is impressed by Mary's sharp eye and considerable knowledge about fossils, remarkable qualities for an illiterate girl. Plain, outspoken and without the substantial income that would make those failings palatable, Elizabeth is resigned to spinsterhood, but Lyme offers outlets for her curiosity about the natural world, as well as the satisfaction of watching a burgeoning science develop. She forms an unlikely alliance with Mary as they comb the beach together, and when Mary's discoveries of several complete dinosaur fossils (including a pterodactyl) bring the scientific community to her door, Elizabeth acts as spokeswoman for her less confident friend. Chevalier handles the science with a deft hand, but her real subject is two women barred from the professional community of men who are also denied access to the more acceptable roles of wife and mother. (Mary's "unwholesome" pursuits and working-class background put her beyond the pale of proper society.). Yet somehow Mary and Elizabeth thrive, and the novel glories in their substantial achievements against considerable odds. Shines a light on women usually excluded from history—and on the simple pleasures of friendship.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. The first sentence of the novel is, “Lightning has struck me all my life.” What did you expect after reading that? What does Mary mean?

2. What attracts Mary to fossil hunting? How is it different from Elizabeth’s motivation?

3. How would you characterize the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth—mother/daughter, sisters, or something else?

4. On page 39 Elizabeth says, “After little more than a year in Lyme I’d come to appreciate the freedom a spinster with no male relatives about could have there.” Why is that? What did “freedom” mean for a woman of the time? Who had more freedom—Elizabeth or Mary?

5. What role does religion play in Elizabeth’s life? In Mary's?

6. How does the notion of “God’s intention” affect their fossil-hunting?

7. Why do you think that in the novel, the women are fossil hunters, while the men are fossil collectors? What point is Chevalier trying to make?

8. At different points in the novel, both Mary and Elizabeth have reason to think that they, themselves, might become fossils. What did each woman mean by that?

9. How does Colonel Birch come between the two women? What are his motives? In the end, do you consider him a decent man?

10. After Birch’s auction, on page 203, Elizabeth cries, “Not for Mary, but for myself.” Why?

11. Which woman needs the other more? Why?

12. Why does Elizabeth go to London? What does she hope to achieve?

13. Regarding her time on the Unity, Elizabeth says, “I did not expect it, but I had never been so happy.” (page 250) Why does she feel that way?

14. After Mary agrees to sell a specimen to Cuvier, Mam accuses her of becoming a collector, no longer a hunter. What does she mean by that? Is she right?

15. Upon Elizabeth’s return from London, Mary says she “was like a fossil that’s been cleaned and set so everyone can see what it is.” (page 298) What happened to change her?

16. What was your response to the ending?

17. Have you read any of Tracy Chevalier’s other novels? What similarities and differences do you see?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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