21 August 2009

Review: REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier ****

"In the year of the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species, set in a town where Jane Austen was a frequent visitor, Tracy Chevalier once again shows her uncanny sense for the topical. In the early nineteenth century, a windswept beach along the English coast brims with fossils for those with the eye! From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is marked for greatness. When she uncovers unknown dinosaur fossils in the cliffs near her home, she sets the scientific world alight, challenging ideas about the world's creation and stimulating debate over our origins. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is soon reduced to a serving role, facing prejudice from the academic community, vicious gossip from neighbours, and the heartbreak of forbidden love. Even nature is a threat, throwing bitter cold, storms, and landslips at her. Luckily Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly, intelligent Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who is also fossil-obsessed. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty and barely suppressed envy. Despite their differences in age and background, Mary and Elizabeth discover that, in struggling for recognition, friendship is their strongest weapon. Remarkable Creatures is Tracy Chevalier's stunning new novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and gender to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, it is a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship."

I became a huge fan/admirer of Tracy Chevalier after reading Falling Angels, which I simply cannot praise highly enough, and Virgin Blue, which was also excellent. Thus I was obviously really looking forward to reading Remarkable Creatures, but I admit that I was left *slightly* disappointed - don't get me wrong, the book tackles an important subject and is really well written, but I'm afraid there just wasn't enough fiction in it for me.

It's the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two fossil hunters from the early 19th century, who are also the narrators in the book (each of them narrates one chapter). Nonetheless, the story is mostly based on Mary Anning's life and if you read about it here, you'll know most of what happens in the story. That's why I didn't do a summary for this review as there's hardly plot to speak of, most of it is based on events that have already been described above (the novel just has far more dialogue and side characters to bring the story to life).

What I really liked about the book were the two narrators - they were both very strong and independent women, quite unlike the other ladies of their time. They both shared the passion for fossils and were better at finding them than most of their male contemporary experts. Neither of them married or had children, thus they were dubbed as spinsters, but both were very successful and far ahead of their time. They were really wonderful characters who didn't give in to the expectations of the society and really knew how to stand up for themselves, which was quite unheard of back then when ladies simply had to look pretty and nod appreciatively at gentlemen's expert knowledge (or say something like, "One does wonder." - LOL), but both Mary and Elizabeth showed that women were no less equipped than man to understand science.
It's funny how things have changed in the past two centuries - in Mary Anning's time, a woman was stared at if she walked down the street alone and was nearly called a spinster if she wasn't married with children by the age of 20 or so. Thank goodness those times are gone!

Speaking of which, the book provides very interesting insight into the early 19th century, when people didn't believe in extinction and thought God was unmistakable. The author researched the subject very well to make the subject as interesting as possible.

I acknowledge the importance of Mary Anning's discoveries, but I confess I'm (still) not particularly fascinated by fossils so I couldn't help but find this book slightly (dare I say) boring at times because there's hardly any action to speak of, just fossil discoveries etc. But whatever the book lacks in conventional plot, it makes up in writing, which is excellent, but that's hardly surprising as the author has proved herself to be an outstanding writer many times before. And while I didn't think her previous works excelled in covers, her latest novel finally got the beautiful cover it deserves!

overall rating: 4/5
plot: 3/5 | writing: 4/5 | characters: 4/5 | cover: 5/5

ps: For additional info on the book, visit the autor's site, which has been redesigned for the launch of this book - strongly recommended as it features a lot of interesting information on all her books. You can also read the first chapter and watch a video of the author or buy your copy here.

pps: Oh and I just remembered, I've been following the author's progress on this book for months and it had two working titles: the previous one was Spare Bones and the first one was She Sells Sea Shells - gutted that didn't stay (apparently something to do with translating issues), but how amazing (and fitting) would that title be, hehe?!


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