Saturday, 11 December 2010
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Synopsis: This book tells the tale of two historical fossil hunters in Lyme Regis; working class Mary Anning who hunts to make money, and higher class Elizabeth Philpot, who starts looking as a hobby but soon finds herself captivated. This is a story of friendship and society at a time when women were seen but not heard.
Score: 4 out of 5
I could not put this book down. At certain points not much appeared to actually be happening, but I was so engaged with the characters and with the bigger themes (friendship, the role of women, questioning the church) that it was hard to stop reading. As I mentioned above, every summer when I was growing up, my family would rent a cottage somewhere in Dorset or Devon, and I've spent at least three holidays in Lyme Regis. Thus I knew a bit about Mary Anning already and have walked many times along the beaches and cliffs where Anning found her specimens. This added a lot to my personal reading experience, but I still believe it would be enjoyable without it.
The story is told between the alternating viewpoints of Mary and Elizabeth, which kept the pace brisk. I enjoyed Mary's viewpoint and it felt authentic. However, if all the book had been from Mary's point of view, Chevalier would not have been able to touch on the wider history, on how people were starting to question explanations offered by the church. A lot of the stuff on the role of women also came from Elizabeth - it was clear to the reader that she was intelligent and talented, and it was therefore frustrating when she kept coming up against roadblocks because of her gender. Although Mary was eventually acknowledged for her role in finding fossils, this was a result of a long battle. This was also true for matters of class.
It was hard to distinguish between fact and fiction in the novel, which might be off-putting for some. At times it felt like a lot was elaborated or filled in by Chevalier, especially the relationship between Mary and Colonel Birch. For me, that's the only serious criticism that could be aimed at the book.
Which Chevalier should I read next?