I have now read three books by Tracy Chevalier, and each one has been very enjoyable. My first experience with her writing was Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which the unknown story behind the famous Dutch painting is explored. Then, I was amazed at Chevalier’s ability to communicate the unspoken. She is able to convey the meaning behind multifaceted human behaviours, such as a glance or momentary change in someone’s expression – and in as few words as possible. The skill a writer needs to do this without being verbose is (I think) vast. The writing in that novel was just like the painting it centered on. Highly skilled and technical, and yet simplistically elegant.
Then I read The Lady and the Unicorn, and discovered Girl With a Pearl Earring was not a one-time fluke masterpiece. I wasn’t so much a fan of the subject matter this time (parts were rather more lusty than I’m inclined to enjoy), but it still captured my imagination. The world of medieval tapestry-making was opened up to me. Again, Chevalier displayed her prowess at making art history not just more interesting than it already is, but at communicating the complicated relationships that were required to finish these works of art the world has so come to love.
Remarkable Creatures is no different. Though a departure from Chevalier’s regular foray into one specific art piece from history, the story was no less captivating. Again, she shows her ability to communicate complicated relationships in the simplest of ways. The story takes place in Lyme Regis, England, in the early 1800s. It follows two women, one an upper-middle class spinster who’s new in town, the other a girl of low class. Elizabeth Philpot soon meets the young Mary Anning after she becomes fascinated with hunting fossils on the beach. Mary is something of an expert, as she has collected and sold fossils her whole life, as part of her family’s wellbeing. She (alongside Elizabeth) finds several interesting things, including the first Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus. Over the years, as different people float in and out of their lives and as paleontology grows in popularity, the relationship between the two women fluctuates between friendship and rivalry. This dynamic was given interest through use of both their points of view. Each chapter alternates first-person narrative between Elizabeth and Mary. Because they are of different ages and social standings, the narratives differ widely in style. Usually it’s a challenge whenever an author decides to take the multiple-narrator approach, but Chevalier accomplishes it seamlessly. We end up with two very distinct voices.
Above all else, Remarkable Creatures is about scientific discovery, and female bonding. It is especially interesting to see how little these (real) women’s discoveries were actually taken seriously at the time. This is ultimately what bonds Elizabeth and Mary. Men had no patience for women’s interests, and less so when these interests impinged upon their own. Fossils were a curiosity at the time – women were supposed to like them for their pretty designs, whereas men were the ones who got to study them. Despite their peculiarity, some of Mary’s findings almost missed the opportunity to speak to the scientific world for themselves, simply because it was a woman who found them. ‘Experts’ dismissed them as fraudulent, based on the fact that such creatures had never been seen before. This aspect of the story was enthralling. Forget about the evolution debate – at one point people were afraid to believe animals could even go extinct! (If animals went extinct, that must mean God wasn’t paying attention. And if God wasn’t paying attention to his animals, how much attention was he really paying to humans? Would he let us go extinct? …You get the picture. )
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. My only complaint is the boring title. Really, that’s all! It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but this is one of the most consistently good writers I’ve ever encountered. This book will not be the last of hers that I pick up.