Monday, September 17, 2012

Starting with a True Story

Several years ago, I read Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring in the same year, making me a Vermeer fan ever since.  Vreeland's novel was based on a fictional painting, not an actual (or existing) work by the Dutch painter, tracing the ownership from the present time back to the painter himself.  Chevalier built her story around an actual painting (housed now in a museum in the Hague).  I've since sought out works by Vermeer whenever I had the good fortune to visit a museum where one or more were exhibited.

As much as I love fiction--and if I had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, I'd choose the former and never look back--I also love a good story that weaves in history and fact.  The best book is one that sends me off exploring, wanting to know more.  I finished Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures this week, a story told in two voices.  One is a London woman who has moved to the seaside Lyme Regis with her two sisters, destined for spinsterhood, when their brother in London marries.  Elizabeth Philpot develops a fascination with the fossils of the region, particularly fossilized fish.  She meets a young local girl Mary Anning, from a poor family, known around the town for having survived being struck by lightning as an infant.  Mary has "the eye":  she collects fossils she finds easily, selling them to help support her family, something she learned from her cabinetmaker father. Despite their social differences, Mary and Elizabeth strike up a friendship based on their mutual interest and spend much time together walking along the beach hunting for specimens.

Mary's life--and eventually Elizabeth's--changes with the discovery of a large specimen they at first believe is a crocodile.  Instead, it turns out to be a large animal from the lizard family no longer in existence.  The find brings people from everywhere, either interested in studying--or procuring--Mary's find or digging up specimens themselves. 

The beast causes no small amount of controversy, particularly among those who feel its existence poses questions about matters previously unquestioned, particularly by the church.  The idea of extinction, for some, raises questions about the infallibility of the creator.

As contemporaries with Jane Austen (mentioned, but not appearing in the story), the women in the story face insurmountable limits.  Through she has more resources that Mary, Elizabeth has to slip around to go anywhere unchaperoned by a man.  Both of the women find their marriage prospects dim--Elizabeth because of her angular features, Mary because of her low social status. Their culture even pits the two against one another for much of the story after Mary finds the first "monster."

Now that I've finished the novel, I'm gratified to learn that Elizabeth Philpot did live in Lyme where she befriended Mary Anning, the fossil-finding prodigy, and many of the characters in the novel are based on real people as well.  Once again, finishing a book is just a start.

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