Book Quote:

“Finding that crocodile changed everything. Sometimes I try to imagine my life without those big bold beasts hidden in the cliffs and ledges. If all I ever found were ammos and bellies and lilies and gryphies, my life would have been as piddling as those curies, with no lightning to turn me inside out and give me joy and pain at the same time.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (NOV 20, 2010)

Mary Anning may be one of the most famous real-life heroines you’ve never heard of. She was the first to discover an ichthyosaurus and complete pterosaur in Lyme, Great Britain, as well as the squaloraja, a transition animal between sharks and rays.

She and her older friend Elizabeth Philpot – a middle-age spinster whose fossil fish collection ended up in Oxford – are now given their due in this complex and fascinating novel by Tracy Chevalier. It is a riveting work for many reasons: the exploration of the plight of English women in the 1800s, the class distinctions that define these women’s very identity, the art and science of fossil-hunting, and perhaps most of all, the advent of a new way of thinking about the world that had been hobbled and confined by superstitious religion.

As a young child, Mary survived a lightning strike, which the locals felt gave her an uncanny gift for finding fossils. Her impoverished family sold these “curies” to Lyme tourists and eked out a living…until she came across a “crocodile” – in reality, the ichthyosaurus – which changed everything.

As Elizabeth explains to her teenage nephew much later on: “When Mary discovered that ichthyosaurus, she did not know it at the time, but she was contributing to a new way of thinking about the world. Here was a creature that had never been seen before, that did not seem to exist any longer, but was extinct – the species had died out. Such phenomenons made people think that perhaps the world is changing, however slowly, rather than being a constant, as had been previously thought.” The world is suddenly seen to be older than the six thousand years, she goes on to say, calculated by Bishop Ussher.

Much of this book is based on fact – for example, a spellbinding auction of collected fossils from one of her patrons, Lt. Col. Birch (a man who was above her station, but whom she loved) to raise money for Mary. Or the accusation of the renowned French scientist Cuvier, who accused Mary of fraud – a charge she successfully rebutted.

But the novel really shines when it reveals the interactions between Mary and Elizabeth, in meticulous period detail. Elizabeth is the main voice of the novel – educated, analytical, pragmatic – and it is she who teaches Mary how to read letters, and especially how to read people. Ms. Chevalier does not shy away from the jealousies and resentments of these two women nor the ups and downs of a highly unconventional friendship, cemented by a shared passion for collecting…and eventually, for a man.

The title that Ms. Chevalier chose, of course, has a double meaning. The extinct “monsters” that are unearthed by Mary are, indeed, remarkable, but so are these two women who influenced many famous male scientists (who gladly and greedily took the credit).

Elizabeth muses –when she shows up uninvited and unwelcome at the prestigious male-only Geological Society to defend her friend’s name — “This is all she (Mary) will get: a scrap of thanks crowded out by far more talk of glory for beast and man. Her name will never be recorded in scientific journals or books, but will be forgotten. So be it. A woman’s life is always a compromise.” Ms. Chevalier does her part in correcting that in this hard-to-put-down book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 70 readers
PUBLISHER: Plume; Reprint edition (October 26, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Tracy Chevalier
EXTRAS: Reading Guide

Ron Charles gives some more background as to when these events to place:  Remarkable Creatures

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another story set at the same time:

The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott


November 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, Reading Guide

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