Tracy Chevalier: Remarkable Creatures (2009)

On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious authorities on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After struggling through cold storms, landslips, and other natural threats, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.

l often say I don’t like historical (genre) novels but I will not say this anymore. I may not pick them up frequently but when I do I often enjoy them. Even more so when they open a door to a world that fascinates me and of which I didn’t know a lot. Tracy Chevalier’s book Remarkable Creatures was exactly one of those books.

In the early 19th century the little working-class girl Mary Anning helps her family make a living with “curies” – curiosities – she finds on the beaches of Lyme Regis. Uneducated as she is, she doesn’t know a lot about fossils, she only knows that the rich people who come to stay at Lyme Regis give her money for her finds. Elizabeth Philpot who has moved to Lyme Regis with her two sisters is equally attracted by fossils. She is an unmarried woman who due to her unpleasing looks and the lack of money has no chance of ever finding a husband. When she meets Mary she is immediately aware that the girl has a gift. Where others see only stones and rubble, little Mary spots fossils. The two become friends and Elizabeth mentors the girl and helps her to sell her finds to a good price. When Mary makes a revolutionary discovery, the fossilized skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, it is Elizabeth who fights for Mary’s right to be rewarded and acknowledged as the finder.

The book tells the life story of these two women in alternating first person narratives. It desribes their struggles, their failure at finding love and their fight for recognition. This is a time in which the idea of evolution, the fact that there once have been species that are now extinct, is thought to be blasphemous and heretic. And it’s even more problematic to acknowledge that women could contribute to science. Mary Anning’s discoveries are “remarkable” to some and shocking to many others.

This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff.

I was completely captivated by this story. The descriptions are so well done. Tracy Chevalier has a gift to bring the past to life. I already noticed that when I read Girl With a Pearl Earring. The period detail seems extremely well done. I have always been fascinated by fossils and delighted when I found some but I never bothered to read much about them. I had never heard of Mary Anning before and loved to be introduced to this amazing woman and her story.

I expected something slightly different though. I thought this would be a novel about a friendship which it is to a certain extent only not the type I had in mind. I’m obviously used to modern-day friendships with the emphasis on discussion and soul-baring. There is none of this in this book. Their friendship is expressed in silent company, not conversation. More than anything else, these two women form a little support group. Both have not been treated kindly by society and could be called outcasts. Elizabeth maybe less than Mary but still to some extent as well. Both are trapped by their respective class and their gender and if it hadn’t been for the fossils and their attachment to each other, they would have lived sad and lonely lives.

The melancholy mood and the evocative descriptions of the setting, the beaches of Lyme Regis, the weather, the danger of being killed in a landslip fascinated me even more than the story of these two women. The cover of the book captures some of this very well. A lonely rather rough-looking beach and two figures completely absorbed by what they see.

I’ve read that others found the book to be flat or lacking. It wasn’t any of this for me. I liked it a great deal and would highly recommend it to those who like Tracy Chevalier’s books.

Have you read this or other books by Tracy Chevalier? Which is your favourite?

Here is the link to Tracy Chevalier’s blog and a video in which you can see the beaches and listen to her talk about the creation of the book and why she chose to tell this story. It’s quite fascinating.

The book is part of a readalong hosted by Emma (Book Around the Corner). Unfortunately the book didn’t work for her. You can find her impressions here.

53 thoughts on “Tracy Chevalier: Remarkable Creatures (2009)

    • I agree, it’s very absorbing, it’s like watching a movie. After havinfg read Girl with a Pearl Earring the whole world she created followed me for days. I hope you will like it when you read it.

  1. Fresh from Emma’s blog….

    I didn’t read The Girl with the Pearl Earring as it didn’t appeal, but I quite liked the film. I won’t read this either but I will watch the film when it’s released. Funny to read such widely different reactions.

  2. I’m really glad you enjoyed it so much because, like I said on my blog, I felt guilty that you were embarked in a boring book.

    According to the quote here, there is no problem with the translation. It’s faithful.

    I didn’t like it, that’s all. I didn’t get attached to the characters, thought the descriptions endless and useless and it lacked psychological insight. At least in the 110 pages I read but according to my friend who read it too, it didn’t get better after for her either.

    PS: I’ve read Aiding and Abetting, I don’t even feel like spending time on a review…

    • I did but I was warned by your tweet and then I watched the video and I liked Tracy Chevalier and the way she spoke and all that together…
      What you say about her writing, that one doesn’t get attcahed to the characters, that it isn’t psychlogical, that’s all true. For me it really is like being there and looking around in a world long gone and I find that strangely fascinating. I didn’t even need so much more.
      I just thought the story gets more gripping. The style is what it is. From beginning to the end.

  3. Enjoyed reading your review, Caroline! I love the premise of the book – two women finding fossils on the beach during the 19th century. It must have been tough for them being in a field which was largely the domain of men at that time and it must also have been quite an unconventional profession for anyone. I enjoyed watching the video for which you have given the link. I love Tracy Chevalier’s enthusiasm.

    • I’m glad you liked my review and the video. I have watched a few writers talk about their work but I thought she had a particular enthusiasm.
      It’s an infuriating books especially towards the end when Elizabeth goes to fight for Mary in London. She isn’t allowed into any meeting room, has to wait outside for a man to come out, take her message, go back in.
      It’s very hard work and dangerous. I didn’t know there were so many landslips and people regularly died, buried under the rocks.
      It was quite captivating to read about it.

  4. Hi Caroline
    My response was somewhere between yours and Emma’s. It was OK for me, but it didn’t really take off. I do agree with your assessment that it gave a good feeling for the period and the place, and for me that was really all I liked about the book. I’ve linked to my review in case you’re interested in seeing my take on it (from a year ago).

    • I understand why Emma was disappointed but I really liked it. Thanks for linking to your review. It will be interesting to read it. Btw You were in my spam folder.

  5. I’ve been so busy these past few weeks that I never got anywhere near this to read. But I’m looking forward to it for some point in the future! Like you, I hardly ever read historical novels but I do enjoy them very much when I pick them up.

    • We had somewhat split reactions on this book. Emmma found it “remarkably boring”. Rohan commented on Dannielle’s blog that she found it flat while Danielle and myself like it. I think it has a lot to do with what you expect. It’s not a psychlogical novel, nor witty à la Jane Austen. It’s much more like a Biopic.
      I hope you will like it should you try it.

    • I would love to know what you think. I hope Danielle’s post will be up soon as well.
      It’s just such an amazing story, I never knew that a simple working girl made some of the most astonishing discoveries.

    • You’re welcome, I thought she does really transmit her enthusiasm for the book. I’d love to visit, it’s a rough looking beach, not like the sandy beaches I’m used to but it has it’s charm. I loved Girl with a Pearl Earring.

  6. I’m still reading, so I’ll come back and read your (and Emma’s) post properly when I finish, but I am very much enjoying it. I do like historical fiction, so this one was right up my alley. It sounds as though you enjoyed this and I’m glad. I am almost finished with Conventry, though, so will hopefully be posting on time for that one. Too many readalongs just converged at the same time unfortunately!

    • I really enjoyed it and was a bit baffled by Emma’s strong reaction. I can see how one could expect something else but to dislike it so much. Don’t tell me about the readalongs. I thought May would be better but it’s worse. I signed up for a blog tour, something I haven’t done before and will have to post on time as well. At least it’s a mystery, so should be fun.

      • I’m trying to pare things down for May as I just looked at the stack of half read and just started books on my pile and realize things have gotten way out of control. I’ll be reading the next book for the Lit & War readalong for sure, and will hopefully still read the Alice Walker novel (reread should say), but I think otherwise I am going to work on whittling my partially read pile of books down. I am so easily tempted, though, so we’ll see how it goes. Blog tours are sort of fun, but there is that added pressure of having a deadline, so I’ve not done any in quite a while. I look forward to seeing which book you’ll be reading–mysteries have been really appealing to me right now.

        • I have the feeling I signed up for a novel of “romantic suspense”. Yeah well… I have enjoyed a few titles like that in the past and it’s an Australian author… One more for the challenge which I have neglected.

  7. I very much liked Girl with a pearl earring, but instead of seeking out other books by her I looked for other books with Vermeer, which made me want to read more of Susan Vreeland. So I suppose Tracy Chevalier was just an intermediary for me, :). I saw this book but it sounded not interesting enough to me, and reading your review which is thoughtful and very good convinced me that it isn’t for me. Even though I like quiet books this one just does not speak to me at all.

  8. It’s cool you and Rikki are going to read the Ward book like Buried in Print and I did–it was a fun way to read the book and we were wondering if anyone else would pair up and read together!

    • The funny thing is that I actually asked about the similaritiy to Vreeland because I knew how much Rikki had liked it when she read it recently and thought Girl Reading might be for her.
      Maybe when we post about it there will be more people joining but being two is nice as well.

  9. Hi…I am bock…well sort of. I still have no ability to read yet, my mind drift away so easily to that day 😉

    Anyway…I haven’t read anything by Tracy Chevalier, but I think you know that I don’t like girl with pearl earring movie, haven’t read the book yet…this one sounds a lot better than Pearl earring. It has better depth than that one…but of course I only judge it from movie.

    • I can imagine… It really must have been something.
      I loved the book Girl with a Pearl Earring. I liked the movie as well, I had watched it right after but the book is much better in my opinion. I can really not say which one I liked better. I think the story of Girl… was more suspenseful, but this was more interesting. And a true story.

  10. I so connect wtih these lines from your post: ” I may not pick them up frequently but when I do I often enjoy them. Even more so when they open a door to a world that fascinates me and of which I didn’t know a lot.”

    A friend of mine bought me this book a few years ago, which I still haven’t read. But I loved Girl With A Pearl Earring, and I can tell from your post that I would love this, too. I even love a melancholy mood; isn’t that weird? 🙂

    • I think if a historical novel is well done, it’s almost magical. I hope you will like it.
      I don’t think it it’s weird to like a melancholy mood, I’m all for it.

  11. Pingback: June Readalong: Girl reading by Katie Ward : Rikki's Teleidoscope

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