THE CORAL THIEF by Rebecca Stott
â Although I was beginning to question everything I had ever known, even the definition of species, the full implications of transformism still alarmed me. Without belief in order and structure and providence, where would we be? The imagined godlessness of such a world frightened me.â
Review by Poornima Apte (NOV 01, 2009)
Well before Charles Darwin presented the theory of evolution in 1859, there were scientists who thought along similar linesâwho believed that species âwere mutable and that Nature was on the move.â Much like scientists who came even earlier and set forth what were considered equally radical ideas, these people tooâmany of whom were in Franceâwere labeled godless heretics.
When Daniel Connor, a freshly minted medical student, travels to Paris in July 1815, his professor in Edinburgh had already warned him about these âhereticsââalso known as transformists. âParis is riddled with infidels, Professor Jameson had warned me back in Edingburgh. âThey are poets, those French transformists, not men of science,ââ Connor recalls.
Connor is on his way to learn from the giants in science who teach and conduct research at Franceâs famous Jardin des Plantesââa garden for the enlightenment of the people.â Specifically, he has recommendations from his professor and some corals and fossil specimens, he hopes will impress Cuvier, a leader in the field of anatomy.
But before he can even get to Paris, a beautiful French woman, Lucienne Bernard, dazzles him and ends up stealing his journals and scientific specimens. As it turns out, Lucienne too has been schooled in the essential principles of transformist theory and has even worked in the fields for a prominent French scientist in the field, Professor Lamarck.
Once in Paris, Connor runs into Lucienne over and over again and slowly falls for her. Lamarck and Cuvier are at odds with each other about their scientific viewsâCuvier, for one, does not buy into the principles of evolutionary theory but Lamarck does. âLamarckâs world of change and flux and progress was revolutionary, a world of horizontals and possibilities, whereas Cuvierâs was a world of fixed and vertical hierarchies. Politically, they were absolutely opposed ways of seeing,â the author, Rebecca Stott, explains. It follows that their followers, Lucienne and Connor, also differ in their views of this science and therefore argue with each other about is finer aspects.
Slowly, even as he begins work in the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, as a naturalistâs aide to Professor Cuvier, Lucienneâs transformist theories begin to lodge themselves in Connor and he begins to question his own way of thinking. Even if he âhad been taught that questioning the truth of the Bible had eternal consequences.â
âScience isnât about making things fit with the Bible. Genesis was written two thousand years ago by men who didnât know what we know. They werenât trying to explain how the world began, not scientifically. Itâs a creation story,â Lucienne explains once.
All well and good. About a third of the way through though, Lucienne suddenly morphs into a plain vanilla thief and for various reasons, has to steal the precious Satar diamond from the Jardin des Plantes (with Connorâs help of course). After this, the book reads like a Parisian version of âOceanâs 11ââa heist plotted out well and executed smoothlyâalmost.
The seductive allure of Paris is on full display here and it is as much a central character in the story as any. Rebecca Stott, who wrote the beautifully atmospheric, Ghostwalk, does a good job of painting the smallest historic details of Paris of the early 1800s. Her recounting the fate of Napoleonâwho has just been defeated at Waterlooâin very short chapters, especially helps create the atmosphere. These chapters are intermingled with the main story.
Stott seems to have found her callingâin bringing the elements of science to literature. In The Coral Thief, however, it seems as if science sits on the bleachers much too oftenâallowing other elements of the story line: a romance, a heist, to take over the plot.
Stott tries to create a âbeautiful savantâ in Lucienneâa strong, mysterious woman. To some extent she succeeds. But the attempts at creating a woman who is haunting and mysterious actually backfires because Lucienne is a character who is never fully realized. In trying to create a woman of mystery devoted to science, neither science nor the woman ends up emerging strong.
âToday I am Dufour the locksmith. Tomorrow I am a linen dealer or a botanical illustrator or a printerâs assistant. In Paris I am many people,â Lucienne says. Therein lies the problem. All those avatars donât make for an alluring heroine, just a frustrating one.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 15 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Spiegel & Grau (September 15, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Rebecca Stott|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of Ghostwalk
More science in fiction:
- Tennyson (1996)
- Darwin and the Barnacle (2003)
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2003)
- Theatres of Glass: The Woman Who Brought the Sea to the City (2003)
- Oyster (2004)
- Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (June 2012)