This is a well-told and stirring fictionalized account of the life of fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist Mary Anning, an impoverished working class woman growing up in the small British coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset in the early 19th century. As a child, Mary incessantly searched the fossil-riddled cliffs and shorelines of her home town in search of ancient teeth, bones and other exotic bits her family could sell to tourists, to stave off starvation. When she and her brother make their first major childhood discovery of a complete skeleton of the Mesozoic-era ichthyosaur, the family suddenly discovers that there is real money to be made, but for Mary, it is the beginning of a lifelong passion to bring these “beasts” to the attention of a world—and specifically an academic and religious community– not necessarily ready to admit that now-extinct life forms had existed well before mankind came on the scene, with all that implies for the average Victorian Bible-thumper.
Mary makes an unlikely friend in middle-class spinster Elizabeth Philpot, a strong-willed and independent woman whose married brother exiles her –along with two single sisters—to Lyme Regis to save himself the cost of supporting his deemed unmarriageable siblings in London style. Mostly content to live in her cottage by the sea, Elizabeth discovers her own fascination with fossilized fish, and becomes a contented beachcomber in the company of the much younger Mary, much to the dismay of many in the town who are discomfited by this unladylike pair.
The story takes a major turn when Mary’s discoveries are in turn discovered—and appropriated–by the scientific community, and Elizabeth takes on the fight for Mary’s reputation. Through this novel, Chevalier is both telling Mary’s story and simultaneously using every opportunity to wax indignant at the outrageous dismissal of women’s contributions to the academic and scientific communities of the era. While I enjoyed the book for bringing this amazing woman to light, I found that Chevalier’s fictional overlay of blighted romance, petty rivalries, and sisterly angst did a disservice to an otherwise powerful and compelling story. Chevalier’s descriptions of the fossils themselves and how they were found, excavated, preserved, presented and so on were fascinating, and her literary rendering of the circumstances under which Mary had to labor—from the poverty into which she was born to the sometimes dangerous environmental and geological conditions she had to navigate in her work—makes this a fine story worth the read.