Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Dutton, New York, 2010
Borrowed from the library.
Having heard so much about her books, and never having read Tracy Chevalier before, I was not sure what to expect. Remarkable Creatures is a a lovely novel, a story of scientific discovery that changed the way people saw the world and of an unusual friendship between two women.
Chevalier has taken the true story of Mary Anning, a poor, uneducated young women from the small town of Lyme Regis on the coast of England, and imagined what it must have been like for her, struggling to be recognized by the very rigid, all male scientific community of the early 1880’s. Mary had an exceptional eye and lived in an area rich with fossils from the Jurassic era. With the help of her friend, Elizabeth Philpot, an unmarried women of the middle class who shares her love of fossils, Mary struggles to over come class, social and sexual prejudice to become recognized as a self-taught fossil hunter. She found some astounding fossils of creatures never seen before. Chevalier give voice to a very clear distinction between fossil collectors and fossil hunters.
Collectors have a list of items to be obtained, a cabinet of curiosities to be filled by others’ work. They might go out onto the beach sometimes and walk along, frowning at the cliffs as if looking at an exhibition of dull paintings. They cannot concentrate, for the rocks all look the same to them: quartz looks like flint, beef like bones….
Hunters spend hour after hour, day after day out in all weather, our faces sunburnt, our hair tangled by the wind, our eyes in a permanent squint, our nails ragged and our fingertips torn, our hands chapped. Our boots are trimmed with mud and stained with seawater. Our clothes are filthy by the end of the day. Often we find nothing, but we are patient and hardworking, and not put off by coming back empty-handed…From page 96.
Remarkable Creatures switches between the voices of Mary and Elizabeth. I found Elizabeth a bit more believable, but thoroughly enjoyed both of these characters. Chevalier deftly portrays their struggle to overcome their differences and honor their friendship.
I love the sciences of geology and paleontology and I have searched for fossils. This novel takes place in one of my favorite periods of scientific history. Chevalier has done a great job writing a believable portrayal of the changes brought about by scientific discovery and the struggles between religion and science, between tradition and discovery.
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