29 January 2014

book review: remarkable creatures

remarkable creatures by tracy chevalier

i most often like to read novels that are set in a present day time period.  i'm not much for historical fiction; i like being able to relate to the characters in a setting that feels familiar to me.  but every once in a while i'll read the back cover of a book that may not meet this qualification but draws me in anyway.  tracy chevalier is an author known for setting her stories in different eras, expertly weaving fiction in with fact in such a fluid and engaging manner that i hardly notice that i'm actually learning about real events. 

remarkable creatures centers around a couple main characters.  first, mary (real life mary anning) is a young girl who is known for having been struck by lightning at a young age, though i never really see what this has to do with anything other than to perhaps prompt the reader into thinking hey, something about this girl is different and i should probably take notice.  she spends her time combing the beaches in her england seaside town for fossils that she sells for change.  her family is poor; her father makes cabinets and her mother earns meager money washing other people's linens.

elizabeth is the other primary character; she and her two sisters are forced to leave the house they grew up in when their brother decides to marry and they can no longer be supported.  they move to the same seaside town where mary anning lives and try to find ways to move on with their lives as single woman living at a level below that which they were accustomed but can be be afforded with their yearly allowance.  isn't it fascinating to think this was life for women back in the 1800s?  you (or your parents) had to find someone to marry but you also had to have a respectable family or wealth to lure the suitor; if you had neither, you shifted to living slightly on the edge of society. 

such was the case for unmarried elizabeth who develops the same hobby and passion of collecting fossils as mary, and despite their age difference they become acquaintances.  what follows is an interesting story of the two characters finding fossils, finding friendship, and finding what it means for them both to live in a town that neither feel they can ever escape.

to be honest, as i was reading this novel i had no concept that i was reading about factual events & people written in an author's unique voice.  in fact, i'm not sure much was embellished at all except the trio of sisters; from the research i did afterwards, mary anning's story in the novel and her real-life history practically align.  she indeed became known for discovering incredible fossils and challenging the thinking of the time about the development of the earth -- if these fossils are bones that came together to make complete animals that no longer exist, what does that say for god being the ultimate creator of the earth and all of his creatures having a purpose vs natural selection, survival of the fittest?  it's an interesting topic of discussion even today and tracy chevalier prompts the reader to ponder this very question through her astute storytelling.  i thoroughly enjoyed this novel -- and dare i say i learned something as well!

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