By Tracy Chevalier
Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters, Louise and Margaret, are in need of a new home now that their brother is being married. With no marriageable prospects — the Philpot sisters are not known for their beauty — they take a tour of possible new homes and come to find they like Lyme Regis, a small coastal town known for its fossils. The town slowly becomes home to the sisters, especially Elizabeth who finds she has a passion for fossils. During her walks on the beach, she befriends Mary Anning, a local resident and fossil hunter.
One day, Mary comes upon a strange set of bones that she believes to be a crocodile. The skeleton turns out to be a complete ichthyosaurus skeleton, a creature unknown to science at the time. Mary’s find sets off a bomb in the science world and it becomes a boon for her. The Annings are a poor family but the discovery of the ichie, as Mary likes to call the ichthyosaurus, brings in a little money for the family and she begins to spend more time on the beach taking other collectors and hunters out and showing them what to look for.
During this time, Mary and Elizabeth find their lives colliding, oddly enough, over a man. Elizabeth, ever the one to voice an opinion, tells Mary what she knows will happen with this man but Mary refuses to listen hoping that the creatures she finds will not only change her family’s fortunes but also her own. When things go badly, the women stop speaking but it is Elizabeth, stubborn to the core, that fights for Mary when most needed.
Elizabeth and Mary are endearing. Elizabeth is cold, harsh, and way too outspoken for a woman at the time (around 1810) which sometimes gets her in trouble. She takes a minute to grow on you, but once she does, you’re infinitely grateful for her forwardness and willingness to stand up for what she thinks is right. Mary on the other hand is too trusting and you wish she wouldn’t be.
While the book is about Mary’s fossil discoveries of previously unknown sea creatures, the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, and the ways in which her discoveries changed the scientific community and brought about a discussion of the theory of extinction, the book really is about the friendship these two women forge. Elizabeth is an educated spinster from London with no prospects for marriage and Mary is a poor, uneducated girl from the seaside town of Lyme Regis who hunts for fossils on the beach to sell to tourists. Other than the fossils they both love and obsessively hunt, the two have little in common. You get to watch both grow and challenge the men who want to tell them how to act and what to think. It’s a wonderful read and I recommend it.
In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above is a summary of my review, which can be read in full here. The book was provided to me by the publisher for The Book Reporter review.