In this remarkable novel of the role that God plays in the creation of all living creatures, Chevalier unfurls the fascinating life of little-known fossilist Mary Anning (1799-1847), who was credited with the discovery of the first specimen of the Ichthyosaurus to be known by the scientific community of London. Nicknamed “the lightening girl,” Mary lived with her family in Lyme Regis selling fossils until the early 1820s.
It is, however, middle-class spinster Elizabeth Philpot - also a fossil collector - who narrates much of Chevalier’s tale,
and it is Elizabeth, with her cosmopolitan London manner, who offers up a world of hope to Mary and her poverty-ridden family. Settling in Lyme with her three sisters, Margaret, Francis and Louise, and her brother, John, Elizabeth immediately falls in love with this quaint seaside town and its picaresque surroundings.
Drawn to Mary and her fossils in her father’s cellar workshop in Cockmoile Square, she soon spies the young girl sifting through baskets of specimens: pieces of ammonites and their spiraled bodies, and crinoids, “their long fronds spread out like a lily.” Educated, worldly and missing “the currency of ideas” in London, Elizabeth is intrigued by Mary’s knowledge of fossils. She’s also enthralled to meet someone like Mary who “leads with her eyes and instinct” and is fully aware of the world and its workings.
Buoyed along by their mutual love of fossils, together they begin to search for them along the beaches and cliff faces of Lyme Regis, reveling in their findings: the chunks of milky quartz, striped pebbles, and the "knobs of fool’s gold." When Mary makes her all-important discovery - that of the "croc with piggy eyes"
- Elizabeth oversees the extraction of this monster in the cliff with its forest of teeth and its one saucer eye.
Soon enough, the various stakeholders arrive, all with a vested interest in Mary’s ichthyosaurus specimen: Lord Henry, with his rather grand ways; William Buckland, with his friendliness, constant questions, and his papers that discuss the thorny questions of extinction or God’s hand in the creature's disappearance;
and later, the tall, erect and handsome Colonel Birth, who proves to be an insidious part of the landed aristocracy.
While Colonel Birth curries favor with Mary, she in turn is blinded by her own abject love, her feelings for him idealized rather than realistic. When Elizabeth tries to tell her friend that
the Colonel will rob her of many specimens and call them his own finds, their friendship is placed in jeopardy. Mary is an astute girl, and her self-taught experience is certainly no less valuable. It’s Elizabeth who proves to be her loyal friend and comes to Mary’s rescue, their relationship ultimately transcending the formidable social strictures of Regency England.
The author’s handling of period detail is perfection in this world of fashionable hunters and collectors. Chevalier also strikes a rich balance between character and local color, gorgeously creating the town of Lyme Regis with its mildness and golden light, the desolate cliff faces and sandy beaches.
Connecting the past to the future, this is a story of two women struggling to find an independent place in a world where name and fortune are everything. Mary too openly flouts the rules of what is expected from a girl in her position, and this has tangible consequences. But part of her charm is that she pays little attention to what others say about her.
Her efforts in fossil hunting allow her to break all the rules, freeing her up with a contempt for society’s workings in a way that a woman of Elizabeth’s class could not.