three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-RemarkableCreaturesAmerican author Tracy Chevalier has written several historical novels, but is perhaps best known for her 1999 novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, inspired by the painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. See our feature on Chevalier on page 18.

The Story: It is the early 1800s, and sharp-tongued spinster Elizabeth Philpot has been peremptorily exiled from London by her newly married brother to live cheaply in the coastal town of Lyme Regis. Here, a generation before Darwin will publish The Origin of Species, she takes up the fashionable but decidedly unladylike hobby of fossil hunting. On a visit to the local cabinetmaker, Elizabeth meets 11-year-old Mary Anning and quickly recognizes a kindred spirit: Mary has an eye for recognizing the "curies" (curiosities) embedded in local rocks and cliffs. With Mary’s unique talent and Elizabeth’s formidable knowledge, the unlikely pair will defy the era’s social conventions and shock the scientific and religious establishment with their discoveries.
Dutton Adult. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780525951452

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"As with her earlier work, such as Girl With a Pearl Earring, this is an eminently readable book. It gives us the minutiae of everyday life and an evocative, almost visceral response to the visual world. … But the vividness of context, of object and image, engage the reader far more than the urgency of character. This book works better as tableau than as living narrative." Susan Grimm

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a stunning story, compassionately reimagined. … The ways in which Mary and Elizabeth regard each other over the years allows the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring to do what she excels at: reveal slowly, in meticulous period detail, not one but two women being looked at." Ruth Padel

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Chevalier does an admirable job in juggling the social isolation and reprobation facing Mary and Elizabeth with their common passion for an emerging scientific field that had no room for women. … Though it may be lacking the romantic frisson of an Austen novel, Remarkable Creatures is an engrossing, ultimately illuminating story of women finding fulfillment in shared passions and the bonds of friendship." Paula L. Woods

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"This is one of those delightful historical novels that casts a warm light on a forgotten byway of the past. … [Mary] gets the full recognition due her in Chevalier’s novel, a rich and appealing portrait of her and that other ‘remarkable creature,’ Elizabeth Philpot." Brigitte Frase

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reading this book, I felt I was alongside Mary and Elizabeth on their fossilling missions, doing something not just brainy, but dirty and dangerous, too. … On the down side, Chevalier’s tone occasionally teeters into sentimentality." Gabriel Weston

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"In many ways, Remarkable Creatures is as moving a story as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. But the author’s jarring scientific asides—especially her discussions of Mary’s finds and their importance in the fossil record—punctuate the narrative so frequently that the story never truly flows." Tina Jordan

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Chevalier attends to matters of decorum, dress and manners even more than to the scientific and theological implications of Mary and Elizabeth’s discoveries—and that emphasis will largely determine whether this novel excites you. … Except for just a few moments of excitement and tension (and a single, fossilized sex scene), the plot moves like a careful geologist on the beach, slow and steady, turning over lots of the same things again and again. Yes, it can be rewarding, but you have to be patient and willing to look hard." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

She may be long forgotten, but Mary Anning’s fossils are still displayed in the national museums of England and France, and Chevalier has done readers a great service by rescuing these two charming and indomitable women from obscurity. Chevalier’s command of quotidian details and her vibrant descriptions of Lyme Regis and its environs immerse readers in an era on the brink of scientific and religious upheaval, wrestling with the first stirrings of evolutionary thought. Though some critics found her feminist leanings heavy-handed, Chevalier elucidates the bleak realities of women’s lives in the early 19th century. By turns a rollicking adventure tale, a touching celebration of female friendship, and a scathing condemnation of social injustice, Remarkable Creatures will captivate readers in search of intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment.