Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book Club: September

This month’s book is Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, the same author who penned Girl With a Pearl Earring.  Chevalier’s niche in writing is to take historical people, places, and things and create fictional stories centered around it.  Girl With a Pearl Earring is based on the painting by Vermeer.  Some of the characters in this story are real, but the bulk of the story is fictionalized experiences.

Image from Goodreads

Remarkable Creatures follows the story of Mary Anning, a young girl in England with a talent for spotting fossils.  She finds a “crocodile” in the cliffs by her home, or everyone assumes it is a crocodile.  What she found was actually an ancient creature unknown to man.  As the story unfolds, Mary is swept up into science world and though she is the first person to have contact with the beast in the rocks, she gets no credit.  She’s a woman in a man’s world.  Her story is told jointly with that of Elizabeth Philpot, an aging spinster destined to live out her unmarried life in Lyme.  Elizabeth’s interest in fossils does not extend to the beasts but fish instead, and as she grows accustomed to life by the sea she finds friendship with Mary.

Two big picture issues arise in the novel: women in science and the battle between creationism and evolution.  Because of the time period, Edwardian England, women still had very little rights compared to men.  Even though Mary is the one who finds the fossils and unleashes a ground breaking change for science, she gets no credit.  The men around her to whom she sells fossils take the credit as their own.  Eventually, given time and societal chance, credit was given where it was due.  But it took years for women to not only involved in the academic field, but given credit as well.  The second issue is how to approach these creatures that no one has ever seen before.  How do you explain this thing?  Did God, who loves all his creations, make the animal and then abandon it?  Was it a first test at creating a creature we know today?  The book doesn’t completely delve into this philosophical battle because that isn’t the point of the story.  The point of the story is Mary Anning.  This debate is lightly skirted around as something for the reader to consider, but at that time, the finding of these prehistoric creatures would have been a head turner for the religious community.

Here are the quotes I found interesting:

“Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach.” (pg. 4)

“It was seen as an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious.  I didn’t mind.  There was no one I wanted to impress with my feminity.” (pg.19)  Haha, me on an everyday basis :)

“‘Do not ask me difficult questions,’ he might as well have said.” (pg. 93)  This is when Elizabeth is challenging her reverend about the fossil

“Mary Anning is female.  She is a spare part.” (pg. 105)  the mentality of the time

“She was flirting with him.  Of course he loved telling her what he know.  Men do.” (pg. 159)

“Both may have genuinely meant to help, but by then they all seemed sinister.  I have never hated being a lady and yet at the same time hated men as much as I did during those minutes alone on the London Streets.” (pg. 199)  Elizabeth’s perspective when she is out and about by herself.  This is unbelievably relevant to how I feel about going out to bars and dealing with strange men

Not my favorite book so far this year, but still an interesting read.  The title Remarkable Creatures applies not only to the beasts they find in the rocks, but also the women that find them.  More information on the novel can be found here at Tracy Chevalier's website.

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