Tracy Chevalier is a bestselling author appreciated for her intriguing stories and excellent historical research. I love Tracy Chevalier’s books because they are literary without being pretentious. Many popular contemporary novels have fast-moving story lines and obvious movie possibilities, but little literary merit (think Dan Brown). Tracy Chevalier’s books, on the other hand, are beautifully crafted and written. These are books that will be the classics from our era that are covered in literature classes and appreciated for their inherent artistic and social worth.
I admit that I have read all of her books: The Virgin Blue, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Falling Angels, The Lady and the Unicorn, Burning Bright, and Remarkable Creatures. All of them feature a relationship with history (and often the arts), and intriguing main women characters.
I recently read Chevalier’s newest novel, Remarkable Creatures. Remarkable Creatures tells the story of two friends, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. You’ve probably never heard of these women (I never had before reading the book), but perhaps we should have. Marry Anning (1799-1847) was from the working class, and lived near the coast in Dorset. From a young age, she combed the beaches and cliff sides searching for fossils. She made numerous important finds, including the first pterodactyl skeleton. Although, as a woman, she was excluded from scientific societies of the time and was never very educated, she was an intelligent and talented woman who had a huge influence on the period’s scientific thought. Elizabeth Philpot was older than Mary, and from a higher socioeconomic background. Yet after Philpot moved to Anning’s hometown, they became friends through their love of fossils.
Today, finding a fossil is exciting, but hardly world shattering. Then, however, the effect was different. Science was not as developed as today, and strict interpretation of religion was the norm. The discovery of fossils, creatures presumably made by God that no longer exist, was not only a scientific discovery, but also a religious dilemma as well.
Moving at a slow pace, Remarkable Creatures tells the (mostly factual) story of these two women. It is a subtle novel with interesting characters and a fascinating time period. However, it is a very slow paced novel that seems to be worn away and told as slowly as the fossils on the beach are gradually exposed by the tides. It is a good novel, and a story worth telling.
However, I had very high expectations because of Chevalier’s other novels. Remarkable Creatures never drew me in quite as completely as her previous novels, and seemed to lack some of their sparkle. It was interesting, but not engrossing.
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, has been optioned for film.
To visit Tracy Chevalier’s official website, click here.
“Digging deep for inspiration: Tracy Chevalier unearths the world of female fossil hunters”, Arifa Akbar, The Independent: Books
“Mary Anning”, Natural History Museum
Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier, Harper, 2009.
Tracy Chevalier [the official website]