Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures (2009)

Yet another book I’d probably not have borrowed if it weren’t for audiobooks. Of course I’ve read The Girl with the Pearl Earring (everybody seems to have), but I can’t say I’m a big fan of Tracy Chevalier. I remember reading her first novel, The Virgin Blue, and not liking it. This being in pre-blog years, I don’t recall exactly why, but it was enough to make me not actively seek out her other titles. Until Mr. Smithereens chose this one for me for my daily commute.

I was going to be all grumpy and grouchy about Remarkable Creatures, but something stopped me: first, she held my attention all the 10+ hours of the audiobook, and that must mean something.

Second, I had no idea. Simply no idea I wasn’t reading fiction. And when I discovered that Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were actual historical figures, I found myself pretty dumb and I wasn’t in the mood to criticize anymore.

For the record (and you’ll find the rest in Wikipedia I’m sure) Mary Anning found an ichthyosaurus in 1811 when she was barely 12! That part of the story I found unbelievable in a fiction plot proved to be… simply accurately unbelievable.

Over here in France, we know of Darwin and Cuvier, but female figures involved in the discovery of dinosaurs and fossils? I had no clue (I have not studied any science beyond high school, I should say to my defence). That both women were ahead of their times and some kind of oddballs to their fellow countrywomen, I can understand. By their discoveries (the result of trying to make ends meet for her family for Anning, and the need to find something to do as a spinster in a small town for Philpot), they were led to challenge the opinion that the Bible could actually be read literally. That Tracy Chevalier put in their heads and mouths sentences that sound a bit anachronistic, I now find it either excusable or plausible.

I found the end a bit pale, because Chevalier insisted for a happy ending, while I didn’t read it as such. Yes Anning and Philpot’s friendship is ideal, yes, they earned a good reputation among male scientists (after difficult disputes!), but they paid a heavy price for it. They remained isolated and unmarried in their small town, far from Oxford, London and all the largest science hubs.

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2 thoughts on “Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures (2009)

  1. I’ve had great difficulty with Chevalier’s work other than The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ and had given up on her by the time this one came out. However a number of people I respect have enjoyed it and consequently I put on one of the list of possible themes for this year’s Summer School. It wasn’t chosen, however, so I didn’t get round to reading it and had forgotten about it again until now. Thanks for the reminder. I must look out a copy.

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