By Ron Charles
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; C04
By Tracy Chevalier
Dutton. 312 pp. $26.95
Tracy Chevalier's new novel depicts people who believe that God created human beings just a few thousand years ago. But instead of setting "Remarkable Creatures" during the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., Chevalier digs back to the English town of Lyme Regis in the early 19th century. You know this quiet resort village from Jane Austen's "Persuasion." Two hundred miles north, a toddler named Charles Darwin will someday evolve into the world's most controversial scientist, but for now most everybody agrees with Bishop Ussher's conclusion that Earth was created on the night before Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.
Until a poor little girl starts finding monster skeletons embedded in Lyme's coastal cliffs. That's enough to rattle anybody's prehensile tail.
Born and raised in Washington, Chevalier made her name a decade ago when she published a delicate novel about Vermeer called "Girl With a Pearl Earring." The feminist themes latent in that story have risen to the surface in this new historical novel, which you might think of as "Girl With a Petrified Ammonite." Once again, Chevalier has sunk into a fertile historical moment to examine the way a smart but untrained young woman interacts with overconfident, dismissive men.
In this case, the girl is Mary Anning, an unjustly forgotten, real-life figure in 19th-century paleontology. She was the daughter of an amateur fossil hunter and cabinetmaker who died young (and once tried to overcharge Jane Austen). Mary helped support her impoverished family by combing the shore for "curies" -- curiosities or fossils that could be sold to gentleman hobbyists. (She was the inspiration behind the tongue twister "She sells seashells by the seashore.")
With only a few years of training from her father, she developed an extraordinary ability to spot a variety of objects from what we now call the Jurassic period. Her ichthyosaur and plesiosaur are still on display in the national museums of London and Paris. Indeed, the discoveries made by this self-taught young woman proved important to the work of Georges Cuvier, Louis Agassiz and other leading geologists throughout the world. (And if you think they gave her the credit she deserved, you know nothing about how natural selection has engineered the masculine mind.)
Mary Anning narrates chapters with a raw simplicity that's endearing, if a bit jejune. More reflective commentary comes from alternating chapters narrated by her older, well-bred friend Elizabeth Philpot, who moves to Lyme with her two sisters. Though separated by class, Mary and Elizabeth share a deep interest in fossil-hunting and feel the sting of being excluded from the scientific discussions based on their work. As unmarried women with eccentric interests, they struggle for years to create a livable space for themselves -- caring and not caring about the rumors that swirl around them.
Chevalier attends to matters of decorum, dress and manners even more than to the scientific and theological implications of Mary and Elizabeth's discoveries -- and that emphasis will largely determine whether this novel excites you. At the advanced age of 25, Elizabeth knows the town already sees her as "a bedraggled spinster scattering mud and bile," and she never ever misses a chance to explain to us the frustrating constraints of her position in this sexist society. The beach "was not considered a place for a lady to be out on her own," a rule that continually cramps Elizabeth's work, along with the expectation that she conduct her excavations in a long dress and clean kid gloves. Amateurs who know only a fraction of what she knows about fossils pat her hand and say, "What a clever little lady you are."
Poor, uneducated Mary fares even worse. A landowner who appropriates all her discoveries spells out the ugly truth: "Mary is a worker. . . . [She] is a female. She is a spare part. I have to represent her."
Chevalier paints the novel's scientific and theological implications in subtler hues, and they provide a more surprising portrait of an era on the cusp of intellectual revolution. Geologists are wrestling with the discovery that similar layers of rock have been observed around the world. And it quickly becomes impossible for Elizabeth to believe that the bizarre skeletons that Mary unearths -- 18-foot-long monsters with paddles instead of legs -- are really crocodiles that migrated from England hundreds of years ago. Some of the novel's most interesting sections show Elizabeth gently pushing against accepted wisdom, letting the physical evidence lead her toward heretical conclusions. "To appreciate what fossils are," she notes, "requires a leap of imagination," but she discovers that "few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God's will."
Of course, any concept of human evolution was still far off, but just the new idea of extinction startled people in the early 19th century. "Even I," Elizabeth confesses, "was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us?"
I wish that "Remarkable Creatures" were, frankly, a little more remarkable. Except for just a few moments of excitement and tension (and a single, fossilized sex scene), the plot moves like a careful geologist on the beach, slow and steady, turning over lots of the same things again and again. Yes, it can be rewarding, but you have to be patient and willing to look hard.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.