Set in the 1800s, this is a story about two women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Both women, though far apart in age, education, and social class, become friends as they search for fossils on the beach. But one day, Mary finds something that not only changes her life but changes the world. She discovers what she thinks is the complete skeleton of a crocodile. However, as Mary cleans it up and as scientists visit it, they realize that it cannot be a crocodile. It looks like a creature no one has ever seen before.
Thus begins the uproar of the religious authorities that refuse to believe there were creatures that lived before humans—and that God had allowed them to become extinct. At the same time, men start to appear in both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s lives. Some are legitimate scientists who want to learn more about Mary’s magnificent discovery, but some are only interested in claiming a fossilized creature for themselves. Then when Colonel Birch shows up, Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship is tested as both find themselves falling in love with him.
Eventually, Mary’s discovery is recognized as the very first dinosaur fossil ever to be known to man. However, as Mary is not just a woman in the 1800s, but an uneducated and penniless one at that, she is not part of the discussions on her precious creature, much to her and Elizabeth’s frustration.
Despite the struggles both women have to face, they are able to find comfort and maybe even happiness in each other’s friendship.
Tracy Chevalier is a master at historical fiction. She has written great novels such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn wherein she takes significant moments in history, remarkable characters, and works of art and spins a tale of fiction around them. In this case, the work of art is not a painting or a tapestry as in the two books just mentioned, but the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs Mary unearthed.
Chevalier writes with such confidence, you believe she was actually beside Mary as she painstakingly cleaned the fossils she found, walked the dangerous beach, and held back to allow the man she loved to “discover” his own dinosaur even if she had already spotted it first. She describes the people and the town as if it were her present reality that you are easily transported back in time as well.
Most children are fascinated with dinosaurs and maybe if you visit a museum, you will be amazed by the prehistoric display too, but on a regular basis, you wouldn’t travel to another country and insist on seeing a museum devoted to dinosaurs. But after reading this book wherein you learn that it was a woman who discovered the very first dinosaur ever and that there was a great controversy surrounding it, you will want to visit the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis and the Natural History Museum in London just to see what exactly Mary Anning had held in her hands. Even if this book is a work of fiction, it is based on enough reality to leave you amazed and thinking of worlds and ideas outside your usual sphere—definitely the mark of a great book.
At the start of the book, there are a few pages devoted to the geography of Lyme Regis, where Mary lived and Elizabeth relocated to. Maybe Chevalier wanted to describe in detail the place where the first dinosaurs were discovered. However, after those few pages, the action moves pretty quickly. A blip in an otherwise amazing novel.
Bookshelf Meter: 5 stars
Available in Fully Booked, Powerbooks, and National Book Store
1 star – Don’t even bother.
2 stars – Since there’s nothing else to read…
3 stars – Worth a borrowing from a friend, but not buying your own
4 stars – Deserves a spot on your nightstand.
5 stars – Grab this book now and forget the one you’re reading!
Olivia Yao has been writing ever since she can remember. She has
written for health, teen, parenting, and children's magazines. Her
latest endeavor is being a mom to her three-year-old daughter—her
toughest assignment yet. Swap stories with her at