Tracy Chevalier may never recapture the commercial success of her 1999 breakthrough, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” but over the subsequent three novels, she’s found her métier. Her new “Remarkable Creatures” dabbles in science, rather than art, and there’ precious little of the sex and romance that gave “Pearl Earring” its kick. But in this new work, based on historical figures in early 19th century England, she has created a vivid and stirring portrait of a friendship–as two women from very different worlds find themselves and each other while hunting fossils.
“Remarkable Creatures” doesn’t start out with a friendship. In fact, both these characters are initially settled on their isolation. A survivor of a lightning strike, working class Mary Anning has always been an oddity to her neighbors in the seaside village of Lyme Regis. Part of what sets her apart is her ability to find “curies,” or fossils, along the shore, and after her father dies, it’s these curiosities–sold for a penny a piece–that keep her family from the workhouse. Elizabeth Philpot, the book’s other narrator, arrives in this modest resort destination determined to make her way alone.
As she did somewhat clumsily in her 1997 debut “The Virgin Blue” and much more successfully in 2001’s “Falling Angels,” Chevalier depicts the tenacity of female friendship during difficult times. The two narrators of “Remarkable Creatures” are separated by birth and education, and their relationship begins with all the expected prejudices.
Elizabeth and her two unmarried sisters are settled there to live in reduced but respectable gentility after their brother marries and takes over the family’s London house. While her youngest sister Margaret, still hoping to marry, goes to assemblies, and Louise takes to gardening, Elizabeth discovers fossil hunting. A self-possessed bluestocking, she finds a substitute for her beloved British Museum in freshly unearthed ammonites and belemnites. After meeting Mary on the beach, she introduces her to the studies of early anatomists and evolutionary theorists like Georges Cuvier – ultimately making the young fossil hunter known to Cuvier and his colleagues, as well.
These early assumptions help delineate their voices, but as their narratives alternate Chevalier also captures subtler differences in her protagonists, from their outlooks on life to their evolving impressions of each other. It’s Mary’s skill–her ability to see fossils in the rocks–that wins Elizabeth over first, but when Elizabeth begins to use her advantages to help Mary–negotiating with quarrymen to extract a large specimen–the two edge toward equality.
Chevalier has spiced up what is known about the actual Anning, adding a slight touch of romance and, thus, conflict, as well as a sweet ending. But the small dab of sentimentality doesn’t deter from this novel’s own remarkable creatures: three-dimensional characters, transcending their place and time.