The Coral Thief is an epic tale of change, love, and science
set against the backdrop of post-Revolutionary France. Napoleon has just been
deposed, and France is wrestling with an identity crisis. Will the values of
the revolution - independence, freedom, brotherhood - take pre-eminence, or
will the country revert to its monarchial tradition? Alongside these philosophical
and political debates, similar ones are being waged in the realm of science.
Are species static, non-changing, much like the centuries-old tradition of kingship,
or do animals change to adapt to their environments, similar to the idealistic
revolutionaries? Wide-eyed and anxious to learn, Daniel Connor travels from
staid Edinburgh to the hotbed of Paris, the center of the political, philosophical,
and scientific debates that will effect change across Europe. In his purse he
carries rare bits of coral and precious letters of introduction to Cuvier, the revered naturalist who seeks to prove the stasis of species.
Daniel has left his predictable life in Scotland for a chance to learn from the greatest scientific minds of his day, but on his way to Paris, he encounters a mysterious woman who is not all that she seems. Over the course of their conversation in the coach, the woman learns of Daniel's plans and becomes intensely interested in the contents of his valise. While Daniel sleeps, she steals his letters and priceless coral, leaving him with no way to introduce himself to Cuvier or secure a position at the Jardin des Plantes. Angry and violated, Daniel sets out to find the mysterious lady and his stolen items.
Written in first person, The Coral Thief follows Daniel's experiences as he searches for the mysterious woman and matures from a naïve boy to a worldly man. Though at points his narration is limiting and a more expansive third-person narration would have allowed for greater insight into other characters' points of view, the reader is able to discover the robust society of Paris as a newcomer along with Daniel, which allows for a slow introduction to a complex world. Peopled with characters both historical and fictional, Stott's story sits comfortably in its historical context. There are no obvious anachronisms, the dialogue is believable, and the details are lush and evocative. The narrative ranges from delightful scenes at the Jardin des Plantes, the epicenter of naturalist research, to the twisted, dark alleys of the poorer sections of Paris, and each moment transports the reader to a bygone era.
Overlaid on top of the excellently executed historical fiction is a page-turning mystery that will keep readers riveted. Daniel's search for the mysterious woman launches him into the Parisian underworld of frustrated revolutionaries and idealistic students. Raging around him in the cafes and classrooms are the great debates of the time: is Paris on the cusp of change - do animals change, and ultimately, can people change? This last inquiry points to the thematic core of the novel. As Daniel searches for the mysterious lady, hoping for reclamation of his stolen goods, he begins to analyze the meaning of stasis versus evolution and the impact this dichotomy has on not only politics, philosophy, and science, but also on romantic relationships. As he watches himself evolve and repudiate the life he was taught to live by his Protestant family, he begins to find the key to the mystery he hopes desperately to solve.
About the Author
Rebecca Stott was born in Cambridge, England in 1964 and attended the Hove High School for Girls before studying English and Art History at York University, where she also earned her M.A. and Ph.d. The Coral Thief is her second work of fiction after the critically-acclaimed Ghostwalk, a novel set in Cambridge. In addition to her novels, Rebecca is the author of several academic works on Victorian literature and culture, two books of nonfiction, a biography of Charles Darwin and a cultural history of the oyster. She currently works as a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for half of the year. The other half is spent as a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about the first evolutionists, the heretics and infidels behind The Coral Thief, and a historical novel about the London watermen in the 1880s. She lives north of Cambridge with her two teenage daughters and likes to spend her free time on the River Cam, rowing strokeside in a crew of eight.
This review was originally published in January 2010, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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