Monday, February 22, 2010
The remarkable creatures in Tracy Chevalier's new novels aren't the fossilized ammonites and bellemnites that litter the beaches of England's Lyme Regis, but her two main characters and the poles between which the narrative sways: Elizabeth Philpot, a lantern-jawed spinster resigned to living out her life with her natural history books and two unmarried sisters and fully conscious of a system that has no place for curious women like herself, and Mary Annings, a poor Lyme Regis girl who, despite her lack of education, has a gnawing intelligence and an uncanny eye for fossils.
Chevalier is the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Remarkable Creatures has a very similar pacing: deliberate and measured, which some critics have faulted as plodding. But unlike Girl, which was at its heart a love story, despite trappings of historical fiction, Remarkable Creatures casts a wider net, and as a result, is a much deeper and more fulfilling book. Although Chevalier skillfully explores the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth (a relationship Elizabeth expresses surprise about forming, although she and Mary aren't all that different-both are lonely and lack an outlet for their intellect, and both feel their inability to fit into Lyme Regis' close, gossipy community keenly), the book also delves into the intellectual debate about evolution that had begun to rage in England.
Mary enters the debate after discovering the fossil of an ichthyosaurus buried in the cliffside. Unclouded by religion or scientific education, Mary refuses to believe that her "monster" is a crocodile, although she's more concerned with the money the skeleton may bring in for her impoverished family than contributing to scientific debate. Elizabeth enters the fray on her behalf, crashing a meeting of scientists in London after Mary is accused of fossil forgery by French scientist Couvier and attempting to protect Mary from unscrupulous (or just uncaring) men who are eager to claim her discoveries for their own.
Very little of this book rings false, and Elizabeth and Mary's estrangement is rendered in sparing, painful prose. The abrupt about-face of one of the fossil hunters, a bogus colonel who Mary and Elizabeth are both attracted to, is rather unbelieveable (especially after Chevalier's parade of unsavory male characters-even those with good intentions are too distracted to understand the desperation of Mary's family), but even minor characters, especially Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret, are well drawn.
Like the ichthyosaurus, Mary and Elizabeth don't fit into the worldview of their time period, although one senses the beginning of a new era as the book closes-an era, unfortunately, that Mary and Elizabeth are a little too early for.
Chevalier's eye for historical detail is as sharp as ever, and the notes in the end of the book are fascinating. It's a relief to the reader to see that Mary Anning's contributions to the scientific community are acknowledged, even though her gender and social station prevent her from really participating.