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Tracy Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures

August 24, 2011

104. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

Read By: Charlotte Parry and Susan Lyons
Length: 10h 00m (320 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 02 August 2011
Finished: 12 August 2011

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? Historical Fiction! History of science! Fossils!!

Two women who start
out looking for fossils find
a lasting friendship.

Summary: Remarkable Creatures tells the story of two women living in Lyme Regis, along the southern coast of England, in the early 1800s. Elizabeth Philpot is the eldest of three unmarried sisters, forced to move from London to Lyme by their reduced circumstances. Mary Anning was born in Lyme, the daughter of a carpenter, and only eleven years old at the start of the story. Both Mary and Elizabeth show an affinity for fossils – or curies, as Mary calls them – which are abundant in the seaside cliffs of Lyme. Elizabeth collects them primarily as a hobby, because she finds them – and what they suggest about the nature of creation and life on Earth – fascinating, but Mary is not driven by such high-minded concerns. She collects them to sell, to make money to pay off her father’s debts, and luckily she has a good eye for the traces of fossils embedded in the cliffs. But for all her hard work, the men of science that buy her finds (including the first complete specimens of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) are not the sort that will recognize how beholden they are to the rough, unlettered daughter of a tradesman.

Review: I think I would be hard-pressed to find another piece of historical fiction that was so clearly designed to appeal to me. I love fossils, love fossil collecting, love history of science, love books set in the early 1800s, and oh yes, the fossils! I have several ammonites and a belemnite sitting on one of my bookcases, and have gone fossil-hunting myself more than once. So as soon as I found out that this book was about fossils, I knew I wanted to read it, and once I realized that it was based on real people, I was totally sold. (And also mentally planning a trip to Lyme. I’ve never hunted Jurassic fossils before!) This book is jam-packed with history-of-science goodies; not just Mary Anning but also Henry de la Beche, William Buckland, and Georges Cuvier also make appearances. More to the point, the book depicts an interesting point of time, when the first fossils of creatures that no longer existed were being found, and the things like extinction and the age of the earth first begin to be seriously scientifically considered. I think Chevalier did a very nice job in bringing the debate – and some of the solutions of the time – to life without making the “science vs. religion” argument the central focus of the book.

But this book isn’t just about paleontology, or even just about science. It’s primarily about the evolving friendship between Mary and Elizabeth – two women of different ages, from such different walks of life – and how that friendship is shaped by the expected place of women in Regency society. I thought both Chevalier and the audiobook producers did a great job with this; Mary and Elizabeth alternate POV chapters, and both of them have clear, strong, believable voices, which were beautifully read by the narrators. I thought it was particularly impressive that the narrator reading Mary’s chapters could sound like Elizabeth whenever she needed to read a line of dialogue (and vice-versa), given how distinct the two characters’ voices were.

The book was a little slow at times, and it’s definitely character- rather than plot-driven. But I enjoyed the characters and their setting so much that I found that I didn’t really mind that sometimes not all that much was happening. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, but also more broadly for historical fiction fans who enjoy stories about real, non-royal, historical people.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Mary Anning on Wikipedia

Other Reviews: Ooodles of them, over at the Book Blog Search Engine.

First Line: Lightning has struck me all my life.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 9:44 am

    This sounds really good! I’ll definitely have to read it.

  2. August 24, 2011 10:56 am

    I am looking forward to getting to this at some point. I have enjoyed other books I have read by her.

    • September 8, 2011 9:17 am

      Kailana – I’ve read Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Virgin Blue, but they were both long enough ago that I don’t remember any more than vague impressions about them.

  3. August 24, 2011 12:08 pm

    I’ve already got this one on my wish list. It looks so good!

    • September 8, 2011 9:17 am

      Alyce – It’s not the most action-packed book I’ve ever read, but I found it really fascinating.

  4. August 24, 2011 1:03 pm

    I love Chevalier but this one has kind of put me off. The premise just doesn’t interest me.

    • September 8, 2011 9:18 am

      Lola – I think I’m the opposite: Chevalier is good, but not someone whose books I rush out to buy automatically, but I thought the premise was so interesting that I couldn’t stay away. :)

  5. August 24, 2011 2:16 pm

    This does sound like the perfect book for you!

    • September 8, 2011 9:19 am

      Kathy – Add in some boarding school hijinks and the British Navy and I’m all set!

  6. drbethnolan permalink
    August 25, 2011 7:54 am

    Glad you loved it — I liked it, too! I love all her books actually.
    I reviewed this one a while back:
    http://drbethnolan.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/review-remarkable-creatures-by-tracy-chevalier/

    • September 8, 2011 9:20 am

      Beth – Any of them (other than Pearl Earring and Virgin Blue) that I’m really missing out by not having read?

  7. August 27, 2011 8:31 pm

    Ooo, fossil hunting? Neat! I’ve never read Tracy Chevalier before, I wonder if I should try this one…

    • September 8, 2011 9:21 am

      Sharry – If you think fossil hunting is neat then I think it’s at least worth a shot!

  8. September 3, 2011 9:01 pm

    This sounds like a great read! Thanks for sharing your enjoyment of the book (and fossils) with us!

    • September 8, 2011 9:22 am

      Stephanie – I’ve been a minor fossil nut at least since taking Paleobio in college, if not before. They’re so neat! :-)

  9. Karen permalink
    July 13, 2012 4:23 pm

    Love all her books – read them all!!

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