The author of Girl with a Pearl Earring returns with the story of an unlikely friendship between two unlikely 19th-century Englishwomen. Surviving a lightning strike is only one of Mary Anning’s noteworthy attributes: from girlhood on she achieves international renown as a fossil hunter in the shore village of Lyme Regis, discovering and restoring the first skeletons of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs (among other things). Elizabeth Philpot, a London spinster brought to Lyme by reduced circumstances, shares Mary’s strange passion for hunting fossils and mentors her through years of triumph, tragedy, heartbreak, and scandal. The chapters alternate in the voices of each of the protagonists, as each tells her own version of the people and events they share in their lives.
Chevalier does an admirable job of depicting just how radical the concepts of extinction and changing species were to pre-Darwinian minds, though at times Elizabeth’s religious philosophizing gets a bit heavy-handed. Mary’s West Dorset dialect, rendered accurately, may be jarring to those not familiar with seeing it in print. The romantic subplot seems a bit forced, though it provides Mary with an opportunity to show her growth into a strong, spirited heroine. An enjoyable restoration of two women excluded from the scientific community in their own time by the dividing lines of gender and class.