Sunday, January 22, 2012

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures is Tracy Chevalier's latest historical fiction novel.  I haven't read any of her novels since Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I loved, one of my favorite books, definitely one of my favorite historical novels.  I've started a new book discussion group at my library and since I'm in charge, I got to choose the first two books!  This was my first choice.

The setup:  Remarkable Creatures is based on the lives of two real women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who lived in Lyme, England in the early 1800s and were fossil hunters.   Mary is a working-class girl who lives near the beach, making extra money for her family by unearthing and cleaning up "curies" or curiosities.  Elizabeth is about 15 years older, a spinster who moves to Lyme with her two unmarried sisters.  Their prospects are not good and their married brother has basically shipped them off to live somewhere cheaper.  Mary and Elizabeth forge an unlikely friendship over their mutual love of fossils.  Mary in particular is somewhat famous for her amazing fossil finds.  She was actually a bit of a local legend her entire life, since as a child, she was struck by lightning and survived.  The story takes place over many years, and includes love, jealousy, and heartbreak.

This book brings up a lot of interesting issues, especially about religion, evolution, class differences, and the role of women during the time period.  The study of fossil evidence of creatures that no longer exist makes Elizabeth question the whole idea of creation, and she doesn't get a lot of satisfying answers from so-called experts.  And the way women were treated just makes me want to scream, and it's more than just whole thing about marriage prospects, no jobs, no respect -- at one point, Elizabeth is walking down a London street alone -- shocking!!! -- and people are staring at her because she obviously must be some kind of strumpet.

There were a lot of things I liked about this book.  The story is told in alternating points of view, and Chevalier does a nice job of creating two very distinct voices.  The alternating chapters aren't labeled or indicated in any other way that they're different characters, but it's quite obvious to the reader.
One my favorite things was the period -- it's set in the early 1800s, Regency through early Victorian, so there was some overlap with Jane Austen.  It's also set in Lyme, where Jane Austen set an important part of Persuasion, which is my favorite of her novels.  In fact, Jane Austen and her novels are mentioned, but only in passing, so it didn't feel at all like Chevalier was ripping Austen off, like so many modern authors.  In fact, if you're a fan of Jane Austen, and you want to read more books set during this period, I'd recommend this book by far over some of the shameless Austen pastiches that seem to be everywhere these days.

Update:  I just found out I can add individual replies to comments.  Many thanks to Blogger for finally adding this feature, and to Simon at Stuck in Book for posting about it!  

32 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a couple of years ago (but I still haven't revisited the Oxford University Natural History Museum to see the specimens found by Elizabeth Philpot) - and I loved The Girl with the Pearl Earring (as you can tell!)

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    1. I love your avatar! I've become a huge Vermeer fan after reading the book. And I think the movie adaptation is just great.

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    2. Thank you! Yes, I really liked the movie, too (Colin Firth as Vermeer - what's not to like!)

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    3. He's good in everything, le sigh. And he was wonderful at the Golden Globes!

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  2. This sounds excellent, Karen! I enjoyed The Girl With the Pearl Earring and Falling Angels... will add this to my list, too. Good luck with the new book club. Which other book did you choose?

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    1. Our next book is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. I chose it in part because it's on my TBR Challenge list -- I admit it, I'm totally mercenary and I want to read more books off the TBR shelf.

      I was looking at the other Chevalier books while I researched discussion questions and Falling Angels looks really intriguing, so that will probably be my next book by Chevalier.

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  3. I have had this one on my TBR list for ages. This time I think I must read it because I am a fan of Austen and I liked Girl with a Pearl Earring VERY MUCH.

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  4. Anachronist -- I really enjoyed it. I'm tempted to have the book group read historical fiction every month. Have you read Georgette Heyer? Different than this, but still very good, she's quite popular with Janeites.

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    1. Have you read Georgette Heyer? Different than this, but still very good, she's quite popular with Janeites.

      Ha! Yes I have read several novels of Ms Heyer. Somehow they didn't work in my case. Some were better, some were worse but their predictability always bored me after a while.

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  5. I'm going to be reading this one this year. You've made me excited about it again. Thanks!

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    1. Kristen - I hope you enjoy it. I haven't read her for a long time so it's fun to rediscover an author.

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  6. This new book by Tracey Chevalier sounds interesting. I will definitely pick this one up. I enjoyed "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" a few years ago. My book club is reading "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles. I love this book! It has echoes of Truman Capote and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I highly recommend it.

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    1. It's actually a couple of years old, I'm way behind with my contemporary fiction -- I've been reading a lot of classics and mid-century fiction the last couple of years. I'm really interested in reading Capote so Rules of Civility sounds interesting. Thanks!

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  7. I really enjoyed this book and one day home to go to Lyme. I'm planning on watching Persuasion sometime this week while at the beach in South Carolina. I know it's not England, but it IS the beach in January; cold and misty just like I like it.

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    1. That's how I like the beach! I don't like it when it's too hot or crowded -- I don't sunbathe and I'm not much of a swimmer -- I just like the sound of the waves and just watching the ocean. Sounds perfect!

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  8. Oh, one more thing...I took the test and I'm Anne Elliot, too! Fun!

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    1. She and Elizabeth Bennet are my favorite heroines. Persuasion is probably my favorite JA novel.

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  9. I really liked this one, but my favorite part was the setting: both time and place. I've read all of Chevalier's novels, and Falling Angels is still my favorite. You should check it out!

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    1. I like the setup of Falling Angels -- a lot of her books seem based on historical characters, and it sound like these are original, which intrigues me. Definitely my next Chevalier.

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  10. I've enjoyed many of Tracy Chevalier's books but I've not found time for this one yet. Clearly I need too.

    Falling Angels is my favourite too!

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    1. I love that time period so I'm really intrigued. I may have to push it up on the TBR list.

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  11. This is the one and only Chevalier that I've read and I really enjoyed it. I picked it up because I was fascinated by the fossil hunting aspect and I was not disappointed in that regard. Elizabeth's story really frustrated me - I found it heartbreaking!

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    1. Anbolyn -- I thought the situation for both women was terrible. I'm trying to decide which had the worse prospects and it was pretty bleak for both of them. I'm so happy to be living in the 21st century.

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  12. Ive never read Tracy Chevalier but I remember listening to her on the dvd commentary for the girl with the pearl earing and she came across as really nice and she certainly knew her stuff.

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    1. I loved the movie but I've never watched it with the commentary! I bought it at the Borders liquidation last year but I need to watch it again. Thanks for telling me!

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  13. You've sold it to me! Any Austen or Lyme Regis connection and I want to read it. By the way, have your read The French Lieutant's Woman by John Fowles? It is also set in Lyme Regis and mentions Mary Anning.

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    1. I haven't read it but it's on the TBR shelf and it's one of the books I chose for my 2012 TBR challenge so I really want to get to it -- a neo-Victorian AND set in Lyme Regis, how wonderful. I didn't know Mary Anning was mentioned so that's even better.

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  14. Although it is some time since I read this book (when it was first published) I absolutely loved it. Highly recommended.
    Margaret P

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    1. I was so happy that I enjoyed it. I tried reading the one about the tapestries but I couldn't get into it. I was worried I'd be disappointed after GWAPE but I really liked it.

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  15. It is a good book group choice. I must admit I have read a few of Chevalier's books and this is probably my favourite mainly because I like the subject matter and the setting.

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    1. I really want to read Falling Angels now. Lately I've been obsessed by historicals!

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  16. I like the sciency angle of this book and do want to read it someday. I've read a few by this author and didn't like the one set in France - can't remember the title. How did the discussion go for this one?

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