Thursday, January 14, 2016

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Historical fiction is a genre that I love. In my comfort zone are books about England, the Civil War, turn of the Century U.S. and Europe, and World War II. Tracy Chevalier brings me out of my comfort zone. Girl with the Pearl Earring, Falling Angels, and Virgin Blue were not in these time periods, but got me hooked on Tracy Chevalier's novels. Her style is readable, her books well researched, and her integration of history and culture make for a wonderful reading experience.

Remarkable Creatures has been on my "to read" book shelf for a number of years. I recommended it for January's book group and we agreed to read it. It recounts the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot who were significant figures in the collecting and identifying of fossils on the southern coast of England, specifically, Lyme Regis at the turn of the 19th century.  Elizabeth was of fairly high class society whose position in life is diminished when her father dies and her brother inherits the family wealth and property. She and her two sisters are made to move out of London to a more affordable cottage by the sea. She spends her leisure time walking the beach looking for fossils. It is there that she meets the young Mary who also has a keen interest in fossil collecting. Mary was of a much lower class in society, her father a carpenter, who struggled to make enough to support his family. Her mother was forced to hold the family together after her father's death. Also helping to support the family and Mary was her brother Joseph. 

In a world where women's rights were diminished and even non-existent, Mary Anning was not given credit for her incredible discoveries. Although she discovered the first ichthyosaurus that is still on display in the British Museum of Natural History, she was denied that credit. Chevalier introduces actual personages into the novel and gives a bit of a background in her afterword. Also, the reader is treated to many details of English life and mores. She references Jane Austen and her penchant for the detailing the society of Assembly Rooms and refined class. 

Perhaps the most thought-provoking theme was that of what fossil really was, not in the scientific senses, but what its implications were in the realm of religion. Darwin and the survival of the fittest theory were not known at the time. It seemed impossible at that time that God would allow His creatures to die off and become extinct. The implication of that theory was troubling to the early 19th century population. 

I am not a science minded person, but Remarkable Creatures was a thought provoking and pleasurable read. Now on to the other Chevalier books that are on my "To Read" shelf. 

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