Chevalier deftly reimagines the lives of the famous fossil hunter Mary Anning and her friend and mentor Elizabeth Philpot in the nineteenth century town of Lyme Regis, England. Philpot is the narrator, describing how her reduced circumstances led to a retreat to the small seaside town, and the need for a new hobby to occupy her active brain. She meets eleven year old Mary Anning when ordering a curio cabinet for her fossil collection. Mary has already gained a reputation as a talented ‘curie’ collector, despite the drawbacks of her education, social status, and sex. Elizabeth befriends and encourages Mary and later defends her reputation at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. Mary’s spectacular fossil discoveries cause religious and scientific debate, but she perseveres until acknowledged as a pioneering paleontologist.
What the Armchair Critics Thought:
This is a fascinating story – even more so because it is true. We felt a little ignorant at not knowing who Mary Anning was before reading the book. The descriptions were so picturesque that you felt you were standing on the gusty cliffs, and you understood the meticulous work involved in cleaning the specimens. The author was skillful at describing the bias against women during this time and the ridiculous social customs (such as chaperones) they had to endure even while engaged in scientific discovery. The concept of understanding a personality by what part of the body a person “leads with” was very interesting. It was also simply amazing to learn of how this poor uneducated woman became a world authority on fossils.