Tracy Chevalier’s novels are a pleasure to read. The Girl with the Pearl Earring was luminous and infused with so much historical detail about Vermeer that it brought the painter and his masterpieces to life. Remarkable Creatures does something similar for dinosaurs. The cliffs of Lyme Regis hold a motherlode of fossils, so many that they were scattered loose on the beach and revealed etched into the stone each time the sea wore away a section of the land. Landslips, or rockslides, could expose entire skeletons of even the largest, long-necked creatures. And a poor girl with a miraculous history had the eye that spotted most of the important finds in Lyme, the fossils that would change the way humans regarded time and their planet.
Mary Anning was struck by lightning as a toddler but lived. Ever after she felt the electric rush of the lightning when strong emotion overwhelmed her or a momentous discovery was imminent. She loved the hunt for the odd stones with whorls and patterns that she found in the mud. And she thrilled to the finds when they were entire skeletons of mysterious creatures unlike anything anyone had seen before.
Elizabeth Philpot was too plain, too tall and too poor to attract a suitor and her two sisters shared her fate. When their brother married, they were forced to leave their London home and take up residence in Lyme Regis, where three middle class, unmarried ladies could get by genteelly on a modest annual stipend. Elizabeth found her consolation in fossil hunting, poking around the beach for impressions of prehistoric fish left in rocks and slabs of stone. She and Mary became fast friends and companions, mucking about in warm weather and bitter cold, searching the cliffs and beaches for bits of the ancient past.
Remarkable Creatures is as much about the two women as it is about the astonishing fossils they found. They were real people—credited today in the fossil collections of museums and in scientific literature. In the days when Mary’s finds were setting the scientific establishment ablaze and Elizabeth was accumulating a stellar collection, women were not supposed to hunt for and discover things, wander around on harsh seacliffs by themselves, know more than the learned university graduates and professors who eventually swarmed Lyme Regis hoping to acquire some glorious bones to make and enhance their own reputations. But these two did.
The story traces each of their lives, together and apart, in chapters that alternate first person voices. The voices are as distinct and the characters and the descriptions are vivid enough to take you to the briny edge of the cliffs. You can feel the chill and hear the suck of the gray mud, understand the terror of being buried alive in a landslip and barely rescued, taste the hunger of a family with no bread, feel the despair of bright women who know there will be no distinguished publications, academic acclaim, marriage, secure home or children for them—and the steely resolve and addiction to fossil hunting that keeps them going.
Chevalier’s books are so richly researched and imaginatively drawn that the stories are a double pleasure—learn something real and compelling about a subject that fascinates, and trail after strong characters who cope with the daily dramas of their lives by honoring their own passions and intelligence.
Remarkable Creatures Tracy Chevalier | Dutton 2010