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    fossils and women, both remarkable

    The remarkable creatures in Tracy Chevalier’s sixth novel, Remarkable Creatures, are both fossils and the women who hunt them. Mary Anning, based on the real fossilist from Lyme Regis, England, and her fictional friend Elizabeth Philpot, a transplant to Lyme from London, discover bones of “monsters” at first thought to be crocodiles. As they discover specimens never before encountered, they also discover their individual strengths and the strength of their friendship. Mary Anning is hit by lightning as a child and is thereby set apart for the rest of her life. As soon as she meets her, Elizabeth notices that Mary “leads with her eyes,” a trait Elizabeth envies. After her father dies, Mary contributes necessary money to her household selling “curies” she digs out along the coast. Her skill wins her the attention of fossilist Colonel Birch but fails to win his heart. Fossils begin to take a different priority in her life. Meanwhile, Elizabeth lives with two other spinster sisters, one who leads with her hands and the other with her eyes, with whom she gets on best. It takes a pioneering trip to London, by ship, alone, on Mary’s behalf, for Elizabeth to discover how she leads. The remarkable creatures in Remarkable Creatures defy expectations. No one expects much of poor Mary Anning after her accident, despite her discoveries; someone else gets always the acclaim. Elizabeth does not expect notoriety from her own finds. She knows her limited place in the world, kept afloat by her solicitor brother. The fossils themselves are either ignored or feared as clues to a past that upsets the current Biblical understanding of the creation. But as Mary and Elizabeth learn that fossils are “works of art reminding us of what the world was once like (229), they open to the possibility that they, too, are capable of evolution, of bringing about change. Alternating Mary’s and Elizabeth’s voices, the novel’s point of view is expansive. This novel is hopeful, both deep and light-hearted. Concerned with the beginnings of the study of the origins of life, it invites an inquiry into beloved beliefs and assumptions. It draws delightful portraits of women resisting conventional roles, as well as the men who support their abilities and independence. Not bound by the past, this historical fiction enlivens our present.

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