Tuesday, December 22, 2009

19: Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

Elizabeth Philpot and her sister are eccentric spinsters in the early 1800's - back when mothers spent most of their energy marrying off daughters and the rest solving the menage problem (how to seat large dinner parties so that so married couples sit next to each other). When their brother prepares to get married, the sisters are exiled to Lyme Regis to lived as country gentry, as opposed to degraded gentry in London.

Lyme Regis in the 1800's is where Louisa Musgrove jumped the steps on the Cobb to tragic (or not so tragic, all things considered) results. The Cobb is a stony walk along the beach - where Sarah Woodruff haunts. In fact, Charles Smithson even had a passing interest in fossils and paleontology and even went to look for interesting fossils, just like Mary Anning, the other protagonist of Remarkable Creatures. If my memory serves me correctly, in one scene, Sarah Woodruff even found fossils to give to Charles. Lyme must be a hot spot for women combing the shores for fossils.

The book is told, alternating, from Elizabeth Philpot's view and that of Mary Anning. It is historically attested that Mary Anning was struck by lightening as a baby and her contemporaries often attributed her later curiosity and spark to that extraordinary incident. The book is a charming story of two friends as they hunt for fossils on the beaches of Lyme. In 1800, the society of England is dominated by men and as are the lives of Philpot and Anning - except the part where they are combing the beaches of Lyme, looking for bones of ancient monsters. They deal with men, squabble over men, and fight against them. Only in finding lost creatures on the beach are they free from the tyranny of men.

I don't usually enjoy historical fiction. The characters (who are often speaking in first person, like in this book) are supposed to be from ancient Rome or Jane Austen's Lyme, but they speak in such a modern tone and the modernity filters to their thoughts.

In Girl with the Pearl Earring, Griet likens everyone's voice to something metaphoric; she likened her mother's voice to a bubbling pot. That is the introductory device in Chapter 1 of Girl with the Pearl Earring. The introductory device here in Remarkable Creatures is Elizabeth Philpot describing characters by what feature they lead with: she herself leads with her jaw, Mary Anning leads with her eyes. Chock-full of significance, foreshadowing, etc. But it all feels so modern. (And also a bit formulaic, this book has similar feel to Girl with the Pearl Earring, with respects to tone and organization of the story.)

The narration fixes on the aspects of life in the 1800's that are different from now, which is only natural for someone reflecting on history - but the narration is from the point of view of characters who live in that time only and do not have knowledge of later days, when evolution is accepted and women own property and can hold self-respecting jobs. The narrators not only long for a time of less male dominance, but come across as expecting it. It makes perfect sense for someone from this century stuck into 1800's Lyme, but it doesn't make much sense for someone from the 1800's.

And the tone is so modern. I feel that Mary Anning, not having received much of a formal education, should speak in a quaint style, like Elizabeth Jane, who said "fay" instead of "succeed" and "dumbledore" instead of "bumblebee". The modernness in the tone of the narration and in the thinking of the characters pulled me out of the book at times.

But perhaps, I'm a little overly critical; it was a good book, nesting somewhere comfortably between literary fiction and chick-lit.

On a side note, I got this book as an advanced reading copy - complete with spelling mistakes and everything - as a result of LibraryThings Advanced Reviewers draw. It was really exciting to read a book before it's out in stores.

On a second side note, happy holidays to all my readers and a special happy holidays wish goes out to my friend Mary, if you're still reading. No pun - contextual or biblical - intended.