THE CORAL THIEF by Rebecca Stott

Book Quote:

“ 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.”

Book Review:

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 lines—who believed that species “were mutable and that Nature was on the move.” Much like scientists who came even earlier and set forth what were considered equally radical ideas, these people too—many of whom were in France—were 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 “heretics”—also known as transformists. “Paris is riddled with infidels, Professor Jameson had warned me back in Edingburgh. ‘They are poets, those French transformists, not men of science,’” Connor recalls.

Connor is on his way to learn from the giants in science who teach and conduct research at France’s famous Jardin des Plantes—“a garden for the enlightenment of the people.” 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 views—Cuvier, for one, does not buy into the principles of evolutionary theory but Lamarck does. “Lamarck’s world of change and flux and progress was revolutionary, a world of horizontals and possibilities, whereas Cuvier’s was a world of fixed and vertical hierarchies. Politically, they were absolutely opposed ways of seeing,” 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 naturalist’s aide to Professor Cuvier, Lucienne’s transformist theories begin to lodge themselves in Connor and he begins to question his own way of thinking. Even if he “had been taught that questioning the truth of the Bible had eternal consequences.”

“Science isn’t about making things fit with the Bible. Genesis was written two thousand years ago by men who didn’t know what we know. They weren’t trying to explain how the world began, not scientifically. It’s a creation story,” 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 Connor’s help of course). After this, the book reads like a Parisian version of “Ocean’s 11”—a heist plotted out well and executed smoothly—almost.

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 Napoleon—who has just been defeated at Waterloo—in very short chapters, especially helps create the atmosphere. These chapters are intermingled with the main story.

Stott seems to have found her calling—in bringing the elements of science to literature. In The Coral Thief, however, it seems as if science sits on the bleachers much too often—allowing other elements of the story line: a romance, a heist, to take over the plot.

Stott tries to create a “beautiful savant” in Lucienne—a 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.

“Today I am Dufour the locksmith. Tomorrow I am a linen dealer or a botanical illustrator or a printer’s assistant. In Paris I am many people,” Lucienne says. Therein lies the problem. All those avatars don’t make for an alluring heroine, just a frustrating one.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau (September 15, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Interview
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of Ghostwalk

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November 1, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, France

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