Rediscovering the past
Girl with a Pearl Earring made Tracy Chevalier a household name in the historical fiction world. And now, with the dazzling Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier gives us another intriguing celebration of women and friendship.
Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster, has just moved to Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, with her sisters. She falls in love with scouring the beaches for fossils, and meets a young girl and fellow fossil-hunter, Mary Anning. As Mary grows up and the two follow their shared passion, they find themselves making discoveries that cause a stir in the scientific community and hold implications for science and religion that they could never have foreseen.
The novel weaves together many fascinating elements, not the least of which are the fossils themselves. Chevalier captures their beauty and mystery perfectly and allows readers to feel her subjects’ obsession with them. As Mary and Elizabeth diligently and excitedly uncover these messages from another era, the reader sees how little was initially known about fossils and how they affected the way we view the world.
Of course, the fossils are not the only stars of the novel—Mary and Elizabeth, based on real historical figures, will fascinate readers as well. At age 11, the real-life Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaurus skeleton ever found. Despite little education and even smaller means, she somehow managed to engage middle-class men of science in her pursuit of fossils and helped pave the way for Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Less is known about the real Elizabeth Philpot, only that she was an avid collector of fossil fish—one species is even named after her—and, given their differences in age and class, a somewhat unlikely friend of Mary’s. But Chevalier brings her to life. Both women will enthrall readers with their aspirations, fears and obstacles and, above all, their admirable determination.
The story unfolds gracefully and will keep you eagerly turning pages until the novel’s close. There’s humor, romance and a down-to-earth kind of suspense. But most of all, there are the believable and well-crafted personal triumphs and tragedies of two women who defied convention and changed their corner of the world. Indeed, Mary and Elizabeth are remarkable creatures.
Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.