Summary and book reviews of Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures

By Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2010,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2010,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"—and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.

Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally.

Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.

ONE
Different from all the rocks on the beach

Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real. I shouldn’t remember it, for I was little more than a baby. But I do remember. I was in a field, where there were horses and riders performing tricks. Then a storm blew in, and a woman—not Mam—picked me up and brought me under a tree. As she held me tight I looked up and saw the pattern of black leaves against a white sky.

Then there was a noise, like all the trees falling down round me, and a bright, bright light, which was like looking at the sun. A buzz run right through me. It was as if I’d touched a hot coal, and I could smell singed flesh and sense there was pain, yet it weren’t painful. I felt like a stocking turned inside out.

Others begun pulling at me and calling, but I couldn’t make a sound. I was carried somewhere, then there was warmth all round, not a blanket, but wet. I knew where I was because it was water and I knew water - our ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The first sentence of the novel is, “Lightning has struck me all my life.” What did you expect after reading that? What does Mary mean?

  2. What attracts Mary to fossil hunting? How is it different from Elizabeth’s motivation?

  3. How would you characterize the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth—mother/daughter, sisters, or something else?

  4. On page 39 Elizabeth says, “After little more than a year in Lyme I’d come to appreciate the freedom a spinster with no male relatives about could have there.” Why is that? What did “freedom” mean for a woman of the time? Who had more freedom—Elizabeth or Mary?

  5. What role does religion play in Elizabeth’s life? In Mary’s?

  6. How does ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Exploiting a beloved historical icon in fiction is risky business, but Chevalier dives in with gusto. Mary Anning, her subject in Remarkable Creatures, is a rock star to the natural history museum set, a feminist hero dangled before little girls to get them excited about science and to prove that paleontology is not just for boys... Chevalier takes a sensational figure (and Mary Anning was a real celebrity in her own day) and focuses on the quiet, unsensational part of the story. In this way she achieves something radical - a new way of imagining the inner lives of women who were remarkable in their day, not as spectacular rebels, but as original individuals stubbornly pursuing what interests them. I had expected to come away from the novel with some feminist insight into Mary Anning, and what I got was even more subtle and surprising.   (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).

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Media Reviews
The Telegraph (UK)

... a book of impressive scope. It is not just the story of this young fossil hunter and her rise from indigence and anonymity to renown, but also of how her discoveries were to revolutionise the way people thought about the origins of the world. It is not merely a triumphant tale of female adventure, but a moving reflection on how much intellectual pursuit may cost women in terms of romantic happiness. And in its depiction of the relationship between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, an educated woman living nearby who also hunted fossils, it is also a celebration of female friendship.

The Guardian (UK)

It is a stunning story, compassionately reimagined. In real life Chevalier's heroine, Mary Anning, was the greatest fossil-hunter ever. Her father was a not-very-successful cabinet-maker whom Jane Austen once asked to mend a chest, but his estimate was too high. Austen looked elsewhere, never knowing that the artisan she briefly met was teaching his gifted daughter to find the "curies", the fossil curiosities sold to Lyme tourists like herself.

The Times (UK)

Remarkable Creatures is not without its faults. Some of the secondary characters possess ­little vitality and seem to exist on the page solely in order to embody certain ideas of the time that Chevalier wants to bring to our attention.... However, Chevalier has taken the true histories of Anning and Philpot and fashioned from them a moving story of the resilience of an unusual female friendship and of ground shifting beneath people’s feet as new discoveries force them to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Publishers Weekly

Chevalier's newest is a flat historical whose familiar themes of gender inequality, class warfare and social power often overwhelm the story.

Booklist

A perfect choice for book clubs and for Austen fans, this many-faceted novel, based on a true story, has a lot to say about women’s friendships and class and social prejudice.

Kirkus Reviews

Shines a light on women usually excluded from history - and on the simple pleasures of friendship.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Readers of historical fiction will enjoy this fascinating tale of rustic paleontology.

Washington Post

I wish that Remarkable Creatures were, frankly, a little more remarkable. Except for just a few moments of excitement and tension... the plot moves like a careful geologist on the beach, slow and steady, turning over lots of the same things again and again. Yes, it can be rewarding, but you have to be patient and willing to look hard.

Los Angeles Times

Though it may be lacking the romantic frisson of an Austen novel, Remarkable Creatures is an engrossing, ultimately illuminating story of women finding fulfillment in shared passions and the bonds of friendship.

Reader Reviews
Suzanne G.

Based on history—
This is a wonderful story taking place on the shores of Lyme England. Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning have a love of fossils in early 1800s. A strong bond of friendship develops between the women, although their social circumstances and backgrounds...   Read More

Dorothy T.

Tracy Chevalier Comes Through Again
Tracy Chevalier has great ability to use fiction to elaborate on the lives of true characters. From the beginning pages, I was drawn into the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot and learned much about them and their work hunting fossils, in a...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Mary Anning's Fossils
The cliffs and beaches of Lyme Regis, in Dorset on the south coast of England, are fertile hunting grounds for creatures who lived in what were equatorial seas in the early Jurassic period, around 190 million years ago. Here is a look at some of the fossil types Mary Anning discovers in Remarkable Creatures:

Ammonites are distant relatives of modern-day cephalopods such as octopus, squid, or chambered nautilus, which they most resemble because of their whorled shell. They grew quickly over a life-span of roughly two years. Ammonite fossils from Lyme Regis can range from the size of a fingertip to about 2 feet in diameter. The name "ammonite" comes from Greek version of the Egyptian god Ammon, who is ...

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