This wonderful work of historical fiction held me enthralled from beginning to end! The novel presents at its center the factual personage of Mary Anning, who became, in the early 1800s, a fossil hunter of great repute. Mary’s story, as the discoverer of the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils, among others, would be fascinating enough in its own right, but when you combine it with her station in life and the social issues that swirled through the scientific community of her day, the novel becomes a true tour de force.
It seems as if every factor was working to Mary’s detriment-she was poor, a member of the wrong faith, a member of a disrespected family, and more than anything else, she was a woman. Men tried to take credit for her discoveries and denied her membership in scientific societies. Yet when it came to the religious turmoil that her remarkable creatures excited, they were more than willing to let her bear the censure.
As a woman, I was drawn in by Ms. Chevalier’s warm and intelligent portrait of this most grounded of women. Mary Anning never tried to be more than what she was, a beach comber of incredible instinct who could see in the stone things other people missed. She wanted credit for her abilities and chafed at the attempts of those better educated and more renowned to claim her findings as their own or attempt to deny the veracity of her creatures.
In addition to Mary’s own story, a good deal of information regarding many famous men of the time, such as the geologist William Buckland, with whom she developed a special friendship, is shared. Also prominently featured in the novel is Elizabeth Philpot, a local spinster who was frequently known to be in Mary’s company as she hunted along the coast of Lyme Regis, and was herself a competent hunter and collector. The biographies of these people are solidly placed in the historical context of rapidly evolving scientific thought and discovery and the ensuing upheaval within the religious community as long-held doctrines began to be brought into question.
I listened to the audio, and while the audio was not at all bad, I really wish that I had read this one in print form, so as to fully experience the lovely descriptions of the English coastal area in which it is set. Whether you choose the audio or the print version you will not be disappointed-this is sure to be one of my top fiction books of the year.