This is the second of Chevalier’s books that I have read. Last year I tackled “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and despite the critical acclaim, it fell flat for me and I found it obvious, and sort of a chore. I also didn’t like Remarkable Creatures, but for somewhat different reasons.
This novel has two narrators: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Set in England in the 1800s, this is a story about women as they try to leave their mark on the scientific community, and the world around them. Mary Anning is a poor girl, a native of the small town of Lyme. Because of her father she has an interest and passion for “curies,” or fossils, and finds them to sell to tourists, not understanding their importance. Elizabeth Philpot is a spinster who moves to town with her two sisters and has a passion for fossils and science, despite the judgment she receives for having a hobby like this as a woman of her stature. She and her sisters are middle class and an unlikely friendship forms between Elizabeth and Mary, despite their difference in economic class.
Elizabeth and Mary actually have much in common, as for the time period they are both exceptionally brazen and independent. They aren’t trying to make waves, but rather share a love of science and discovery and come upon finds that shake the scientific community, and religious teachings. Their friendship is tested because of the affections they share for one of the men who comes to Mary for fossil help, but the quest for knowledge and their affection for each other trumps all.
By all accounts, I should like this book. The characters of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as a few others, have been plucked out of real history by Chevalier and brought to life. I find historical fiction fascinating and as a woman, I appreciate that she has shone a light on these two marginal (by recorded history’s standards) people. My problem is with her writing. Specifically, she does this thing with foreshadowing that sets my teeth on edge.
“I thought that was the end of my new regard for men. I had never imagined there would be Colonel Birch.” Gee, Elizabeth. Is something substantial going to happen soon? Regarding a yet-to-be-met Colonel Birch? If it was once or twice, okay, but she uses this all the time and it pulls me out of the story every. Single. Time. I, for whatever reason, have no patience for the unfolding stories’ direction to be telegraphed to me.
I feel I’ve given Chevalier a fair shake and I just don’t like her writing. It’s a shame because I find her subject matter interesting but here is where we part ways.