“Remarkable” can describe many things in this novel – the remarkable time period (the early 1800s) when the pursuit of science became the rage, the remarkable fossils being discovered and studied, and the two remarkable women – based on real people – who did so much to uncover the fossils that challenged the beliefs of the time.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is set in Lyme-Regis, on the southwest coast of England. Spinster Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters have been forced by reduced circumstances to leave their comfortable life in London and move to a smaller, less expensive house. Their new location suits Elizabeth; she has no hope of suitors and soon becomes addicted to searching for the fossils that can be found along the sandy beaches. It is here that she runs into Mary Anning and a friendship, spanning social status, age and circumstance is quickly forged. Mary has a gift for finding the half-hidden fossils – sometimes complete skeletons – and these remarkable discoveries eventually attract the attention of the scientific community at large. The attention brings much needed income and (some) credit to the women, but it also causes tension, misunderstandings and finally a falling out. This remarkable friendship, with it’s ebbs and flows and eventual renewal, form the core of this fascinating story.
As expected, Chevalier does a wonderful job of setting the time period and creating a believable atmosphere. Her characters are also carefully drawn, each with their own complex motivations, from the various scientists that visit them to the townspeople who snub them, and she brings this fascinating story of the past alive again.