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Remarkable Creatures

A book by Tracy Chevalier

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Dawn of a New Science

  • Jan 4, 2010
  • by
In "Remarkable Creatures," author Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Deluxe Edition, The Lady and the Unicorn: A Novel) takes the reader back to a time before dinosaurs were thought to roam the earth where the Bible and Aristotle were revered as the key references in understanding the organization of living things. But what if, as occurs in this very readable tale focusing on Mary Anning, one of the first fossil hunters of the early 19th century, her discoveries and her desire to be acknowledged, accepted and authenticated by the all male geological societies of the time, someone discovers the remains of an animal that no longer exists? Does this suggest that the omnipotent God made a mistake or that perhaps the entire Scripture-based theory regarding the earth, its age and its continuing evolution requires more scrutiny? Chevalier cleverly combines these large-scaled themes to a smaller framed story about the trials and tribulations of two women's friendship in an extremely compelling work reminiscent in tone and readability of her earlier bestsellers.

Some other reviews have criticized Chevalier's use of a modern voice and sensibility to project the thoughts and actions of her main character narrators, the upper class spinster, Elizabeth Philpot and working class fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Indeed, as early 21st-century readers, we, perhaps, have forgotten that as commonplace as the idea of dinosaurs roaming a former earth may be in our CGI-simulated, media-driven and internet-sourced knowledge banks, the concept of women able to walk down a street unescorted without blemishing her reputation was considered an unequivocally strange breach of societal rules. Chevalier does her best to detail the psychological frustration of the women in her story by successfully cultivating their need to overachieve with regard to being thought inferior to their male counterparts in terms of education and class. If her characters' thoughts are a tad more 2010 than 1810, this reviewer intuits that the mindsets illustrated are intentional and meant to infer a still ensuing battle. Her depiction of the inherent jealousy between the two women adequately describes an automatic mechanism inherent amongst females whether they are professional colleagues or simply rivals for a man's attention. Chevalier's ability to weave such natural tendencies into her historical story without burdening the momentum of the plot makes her the accomplished raconteur that she is and keeps us coming back each and every time she offers another glimpse at an actual historical person's contribution to his/her era.

In "Remarkable Creatures," Chevalier alternates her narrative to reflect the thoughts of two women from different classes who share a passion for fossil finding and eventually become lifelong friends. Elizabeth Philpot's rather fussy, persnickety personality is captured with a feisty good humor while Mary's perseverance and lumbering struggle to attain the blessing of the scientific community seems indicative of her class as well as her passionate psyche. Even with her veteran novelist status, Chevalier does a wonderful job of changing her voice to depict the nuances in each woman's character.

Chevalier renders Elizabeth Philpot's adventure to London to defend her friend's scholarship with so much realism with regard to the spectrum of emotions being spent by the character that it called to mind some of my own early ventures into the bigger world. Chevalier more than adequately details the feeling of exhilaration mingled with trepidation and guilty pride that one experiences when one moves outside of the realm of which they have become accustomed.

Amidst the fossil-strewn backdrop of Lyme Regis and the advent of an entirely new way of looking at the history of the world, Chevalier's chronicle of Anning's paleontology primer earmarks these great scientific milestones with the gusto and the naiveté associated with discovering concrete evidence that disputes accepted theory. At the same time, her story of friendship shines with the ability to depict understandable human failings without seeming contrived and wisdom without getting preachy.

Bottom line? Tracy Chevalier's novel "Remarkable Creatures" hallmarks the great fossil discoveries of the early 19th century with a spectacular depiction of locale, custom and gender prejudices that would set any 21st century woman's teeth on edge. Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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September 06, 2010
A truly remarkable review. What a great job!
September 06, 2010
Nice job with this, r!
More Remarkable Creatures reviews
review by . August 26, 2010
Remarkable women
   Religion, women's rights, and social injustice all play a major role in Tracy Chevalier's newest novel, Remarkable Creatures. One of the heroines of the tale is Mary Anning, an impoverished woman living in Lyme Regis with a prodigious talent for discovering fossils. The other is Elizabeth Philpot, a member of the minor gentry who must rely for her living upon her married brother. When Elizabeth moves from London to Lyme to live more frugally, she meets and befriends Mary, for, …
review by . March 28, 2010
Tracy Chevalier's latest novel, "Remarkable Creatures," based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time - regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had …
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Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #166
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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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.(Jan.)
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ISBN-10: 0525951458
ISBN-13: 978-0525951452
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Dutton Adult

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