REVIEW: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Audio CD, 8 disks (10 hours)
Published August 24th 2009 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd (first published 2009)
ISBN: 0007230451 (ISBN13: 9780007230457)
original title: Remarkable Creatures
setting:  Lyme Regis, 1820 (United Kingdom)
4.5 stars overall / 5 stars audio narration

Goodreads Synopsis:
In the early nineteenth century, a windswept beach along the English coast brims with fossils for those with the eye! From the moment she’s struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is marked for greatness. When she uncovers unknown dinosaur fossils in the cliffs near her home, she sets the scientific world alight, challenging ideas about the world’s creation and stimulating debate over our origins. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is soon reduced to a serving role, facing prejudice from the academic community, vicious gossip from neighbours, and the heartbreak of forbidden love. Even nature is a threat, throwing bitter cold, storms, and landslips at her. Luckily Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly, intelligent Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who is also fossil-obsessed. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty and barely suppressed envy. Despite their differences in age and background, Mary and Elizabeth discover that, in struggling for recognition, friendship is their strongest weapon. Remarkable Creatures is Tracy Chevalier’s stunning new novel of how one woman’s gift transcends class and gender to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, it is a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.

My Thoughts:
This is a truly enthralling read. I have never read anything like it, and I’m astonished that a novel about (primarily) fossils could so capture my attention. I loved that Chevalier was able to not only accurately reflect the culture of the time, but also was able to write technically about the fossil discoveries that permeated the story.

My one (huge) quibble with the author has to do with her theology. She remarks a number of times throughout the book that the existence of fossils, and therefore the evidentiary proof of extinction, shows that God must not be either omniscient or omnipotent, because the changes in the earth were siuch that it was no longer able to maintain certain species. She posits that this is proof that he did not plan…or that he could not prevent extinction from happening…or even that these dinosaurs were early drafts of animals perfected at later times. To speak with such authority about the nature of God, and to assume to know more about God’s plan than he himself does (or did) is foolhardy and arrogantly presumptuous. There is no causal connection at all between extinct fossils and an I mperfect or poorly planned creation. It is conjecture, and perhaps this author’s way of explaining that which she does not fully understand.

This is not to say that I enjoyed the book less as a result, but it certainly had me shouting out loud in objection during those passages. Thankfully Chevalier was not didactic in her comments, and that allowed me as the reader to fully appreciate the story while disagreeing vehemently with her theological conclusion. I’d rather have a strong emotional reaction to what I read anyday than to feel unmoved and unchanged at the end, so bravo to Chevalier for writing a book that I connected to in this way.

My emotional connection was due not only to Chevalier’s beautiful writing, but also to a stellar listening experience. As in other books I have listened to, the main character (two in this case) were narrated by different people, which added exponentially to the authenticity of the regional (and class) differences. It was superbly done, and worth the time to enjoy the audio experience.

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