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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Pages: 352

Copyright: 2009


In the year of the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species, set in a town where Jane Austen was a frequent visitor, Tracy Chevalier once again shows her uncanny sense for the topical. In the early nineteenth century, a windswept beach along the English coast brims with fossils for those with the eye! From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is marked for greatness. When she uncovers unknown dinosaur fossils in the cliffs near her home, she sets the scientific world alight, challenging ideas about the world's creation and stimulating debate over our origins. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is soon reduced to a serving role, facing prejudice from the academic community, vicious gossip from neighbours, and the heartbreak of forbidden love. Even nature is a threat, throwing bitter cold, storms, and landslips at her. Luckily Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly, intelligent Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who is also fossil-obsessed. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty and barely suppressed envy. Despite their differences in age and background, Mary and Elizabeth discover that, in struggling for recognition, friendship is their strongest weapon. Remarkable Creatures is Tracy Chevalier's stunning new novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and gender to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, it is a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier's newest novel, tells the story of Mary Anning, a British fossil collector, from the nineteenth century, who became famous for finding the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, and her friend Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-aged spinster who moved to Lyme Regis with her sisters and took an interest in fossil hunting. Different backgrounds but similar interests bring them together, in a friendship that no one else understands, and they both tell us their story, alternating chapters throughout the book, with truly distinctive voices.

While I'm sitting here trying to write a review and juggle my personal feelings, I can't help but smile because this book is special, it's my first ARC ever, and no matter what, I'll always remember the moment I saw it in my mailbox. But I digress... I have to confess that I knew nothing about Mary Anning, or even of her existence, so I was eager to start the book as soon as it arrived. The first thing I noticed was the author's writing, rich and flowery, at times touching on Austenesque, perfect for setting the mood of a story in a small town of the nineteenth century. Amazingly well researched, it had everything to be a great book, but to be honest I felt the author tried too hard to convey all the information, there was a lot of detail about geology and evolution, many interesting discussions about God and extinction, but the rest was more or less forgotten. The characters never really stand out, there seems to be a lack of emotion present in every scene which helps in painting a drab picture, and most conversations felt stilted and unnatural.

This book reads as a mix of historical fiction and non-fiction, never really settling on either. Maybe someone with an extended knowledge in the area will be able to enjoy the endless fossil examinations, I for one just dragged myself along the story, always waiting for it to get better, to spark to life, but honestly I don't think I'd have finished it if it wasn't my first ARC by an author I've so much enjoyed in the past. I do have to ask... Where are the vivid colours and smells of Girl with a Pearl Earring? Where are the lifelike and likeable characters of The Lady and the Unicorn? Tracy Chevalier does get points for an original idea, for presenting me to an unknown character but I expected so much more of her and so much better!


J. Kaye said...

Oh how wonderful...and yes, your first ARC is so special! Lovely review. :)

Marg said...

I this to read, but I am a bit worried about it! I have read three Tracy Chevalier books. One I absolutely loved, one was a good read, and one was really average.

Tea said...

Hi Alaina,

You have won the Heartfelt Award. Please come by my blog http://summertravelandread.blogspot.com to pick it up. Enjoy!

Ana O. said...

Marg, I can't wait to see if you feel the same way about it as I did!

Sharon said...

I enjoyed the Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. I think I'd have to skim over the endless fossil examinations. Thanks for the great review.