Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable CreaturesRemarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “remarkable creatures” here could refer to the first discoveries in the early 19th century, of the fossil remains of extinct creatures, the Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur, which set the scientific and religious communities on their ears. Or it could refer to the two remarkable women, whose friendship helped them to thrive and survive in an age when women had no public voice and no recognition beyond motherhood. As Jane Austen so ably depicted, unmarried women, particularly in the upper classes, were a burden to their families. At least lower class women could become servants, laundresses, etc. and eke out a living. 10-year-old Mary Anning, the daughter of a poor cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector, helps to support her family by scouring the beaches and cliffs of Lyme Regis for “curies” which are sold in the family shop. Elizabeth Philpot, at age 30 and still unmarried, has been settled in Lyme Regis by her brother who cannot afford her upkeep in London. In that out of the way location, Elizabeth is able to pursue an interest in science and fossils. Because of her class, she is not really free to hunt for fossils on her own, but relies on Mary to find them for her. I loved how the two women learned and grew through each other. Elizabeth is envious of Mary’s “freedom”, while Mary is constrained by poverty. Elizabeth has the connections to bring Mary’s discoveries to the world, but she needs a bit of Mary’s boldness to step outside of the constraints of being a woman in a man’s world. It is remarkable that Mary Anning’s name is still remembered at all. I also loved learning about the early days of fossil hunting and seeing how these discoveries forced people to reassess the world and their place in the scheme of things, a reassessment that paved the way for Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution.

The story is told in alternating points of view by each woman. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by two different women. This really helped to bring out the cultural differences between the two women, and made me feel as if I were “there” hearing about the events and relationships through their eyes.

Description: On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man. Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.

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The Lovely Bones

The Lovely BonesThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fairly well-written book, from a very interesting point of view. Although it deals with murder and grief, it is not a heavy or dark tale, being ultimately about hope and healing. I did find a few plot points rather implausible, but Susie and her friends and family are memorable characters that will stay with me.

Description: When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope. In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life continuing without her–her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she’ll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents’ marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone. With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event.

This story of the worst thing a family can face is transformed into a suspenseful and even funny novel about love, memory, joy, heaven, and healing.

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable WifeA Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another view of love and murder in early 20th-century rural Wisconsin…

If this had not been an audiobook, I probably would not have finished it. It is a psychological tale about desire and despair. It reminded me very strongly of a macabre book that was popular when I was in college in the 70s – Wisconsin Death Trip – which was a catalog of the gruesome and bizarre told through antique photos and newspaper articles. As a gothic suspense novel, I wasn’t sold. It is okay, if you like listening to the inner world of two completely self-absorbed people. At nearly halfway through, I really didn’t care if they ended up killing each other. All the man thinks about is sex, and how “bad” he is. All the woman thinks about is trying to be anybody but herself. And if you think those two are depressing, wait until you meet the “son”. I kept going, only to find out if there was any hope of redemption. The characters are obsessed and conflicted. The prose is tiresomely repetitive, and the plot twists incomprehensible, but “these things happened…” It could make a pretty good movie, though…

Description:
He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for “a reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow, able to take care of the one she truly loved.

What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own. And what neither anticipated was that they would fall so completely in love.

Filled with unforgettable characters, and shimmering with color and atmosphere, A Reliable Wife is an enthralling tale of love and madness, of longing and murder.