Book Review: Remarkable Creatures

In her novel Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier presents a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Anning, a prolific fossil hunter born in England in 1799. Although Chevalier has compressed the facts of Mary Anning's life to fit the needs of the story, her novel is exceptionally well-written, and will give you a better sense of the cultural forces working against Anning.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures
By Tracy Chevalier
Harpers Collins Publishers Ltd, 2009

“In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world.

“Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils.

“The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and jealousy.”

From the official book description on Goodreads

What I thought of Remarkable Creatures

I sought this book out after reading Stone Girl, Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt to my 4-year-old daughter. I wanted to know more about this Mary Anning person, but as I take my history first in the form of fiction, I started with Tracy Chevalier. If you read this book, keep in mind that it’s a novel, not a true biography. Chevalier compresses the facts of Mary Anning’s life to fit the needs of the story, but it is exceptionally well-written, and will give you a better sense of the cultural forces working against Mary.

For those of you looking for a more traditional biography, there is Shelley Emling’s The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World.

My favorite quote

Throughout the book, Chevalier tends to describe characters in terms of their most prominent features. For example, this quote from pp 7-8:

I have long noted that people tend to lead with one particular feature, a part of the face or body. My brother, John, for instance leads with his eyebrows. It is not just that they form prominent tufts above his eyes, but they are the part of his face that moves the most, tracing the course of his thoughts as his brow furrows and clears. … My youngest sister, Margaret, leads with her hands. … She is given to waving her hands about as she dances, and when she sleeps she throws her arms above her head, even when the room is cold. Frances has been the only Philpot sister to marry, and leads with her bosom–which I suppose explains that.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures, pp. 7-8

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