Remarkably boring

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. 2009. French title: Prodigieuses créatures.

Remarkable Creatures is this month read for our book club Les Copines d’abord and it is also a readalong for other bloggers interested in reading this novel. I’m afraid this review is going to be a breach in the book blogging etiquette: I abandoned the book of my own readalong. Of course, I feel guilty and at the beginning I wanted to stick with it and endure it until the end for the sake of that readalong. But I had to acknowledge that I started to shy away from the book and I’d rather not read at all than read it. That was the final blow, I stopped exactly at page 111 and the book has 415 pages.

In appearance, Remarkable Creatures has several ingredients of a book I should like. It is set in Lyme Regis, England, a place I visited last year and it’s always nice to read a book when you know the setting. It happens in the King George era, like Austen’s novels. It is the story of a friendship between two women who have a very unladylike passion for fossils. It tells the real story of Mary Anning, a paleontologist and her struggle to reach recognition in a men’s world and in a world where science was for upper classes. Feminism, history, 19thC England, all these are good tags for me.

Now, why didn’t I like it? I have a French edition, so my English has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s all Ms Chevalier’s fault. I was bored with the fossils. Fossils, fossils and more fossils. So many fossils names and no scientific explanation; I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn something nor was my curiosity picked enough to research the names on the internet. And the style! It took Ms Chevalier twenty pages to describe how they detached a crocodile fossil from the cliff and all in a dull style. I didn’t get attached to the characters, which is the basis for that kind of book to work. It could have been a thorough description of the life in a quaint little English town, but no. In the 111 first pages, there is no hint of social analysis, no hope for psychological insight in the characters’ inner minds. Eveything is a flat tale in alternate voices as the two women take turn to relate the events.

I’m quite alone is this assessment of Remarkable Creatures. It has a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon and 4 stars on GoodReads. So don’t be put off by this review, the problem probably comes from me.

As an aside, here are other reviews from French bloggers:

De ma Plume à vos Oreilles and Miss Alfie at Miss Alfie, Croqueuse de livres

After the Book Club meeting.

Well, I feel less alone. They finished it but also found the style flat, without any flavour. Although the themes were appealing (religion, feminism, the beginnings of a science), the story wasn’t interesting. For example, none of us remembered the characters’ names, which is a really bad sign. They didn’t learn anything about fossils, even after 400 and some pages. When I asked them to relate the story, it was difficult since the plot was rather thin.

I know, I know, this was not really chivalrous towards Ms Chevalier but is it my fault if the book is tasteless?

Not the best read of the book club so far. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of the other participants to this readalong.

  1. April 26, 2012 at 11:47 am | #1

    This, in a nutshell, is why I don’t join book clubs.

    Bad luck, but you were plainly right to abandon it. If nobody can remember the characters’ names that really is a bad sign as you say. It sounds like endless exposition, like a particularly leaden SF novel so keen on telling you what it’s imagined future is like it forgets to do anything interesting with it.

    • April 26, 2012 at 4:42 pm | #2

      It’s always a danger to include too much information (as in this case) and lose the reader along the way.

      She also wrote the Girl with the Pearl Earring, didn’t she? I didn’t read the book as it had no appeal, but I quite liked the film.

      • April 26, 2012 at 7:04 pm | #3

        I must have done something wrong in the review. There aren’t any detailed information about fossils. Just endless and useless details about walking, cliffs, strings of fossil names.
        When I think that she is compared to Jane Austen on the blurb, I can’t believe it. Or the guy who wrote the blurb never read Jane Austen.
        It doesn’t have one tenth of the humour, the wit and the insight of Jane Austen.

        I haven’t seen The Girl with the Pearl Earring. I guess it can be better in a film.

        • April 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm | #4

          Oh ok. I misinterpreted what you said. I thought there was an excess of information.

          I think publishers should be careful when they compare a writer to someone else (as they did in this case). It often leads to disappointment and while the comparions may sell books, I think, at times, they do the newer author no favours.

          Do you think you’ll watch Remarkable Creatures, the film?

    • April 26, 2012 at 7:01 pm | #5

      I can’t complain about the book club choice, I was there when we decided and we all agreed. That was a collective bad choice. It’s my first year and I enjoy it very much. I’m happy to meet my friends for our discussion evenings.

      It’s not even an endless exposition, otherwise I would have at least learnt something about fossils. It’s just plainly and painfully flat and dull. But Caroline had quite a different feeling for the book.

  2. April 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm | #6

    My reaction is opposite to yours and I wonder whether it’s not a translation problem after all.
    I call what she does cinematographic writing, it’s like watching a movie – time travel per book. I liked it a lot, although, admittedly, the first part was not as good. It gets better.

    • April 26, 2012 at 7:08 pm | #7

      I’ve read your review and according to the quote you included in your post, the translation is fine.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, I was feeling guilty when reading it because I knew I had brought you in this readalong.

      She has very good critics. I don’t remember when I was last that put off by a book. I didn’t like The Passport or Les mots but I knew when I was reading that it was good literature. This wasn’t in my opinion; the style is descriptive without imagination regarding the use of the language.

      I’m curious to read Danielle’s review.

      • April 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm | #8

        She likes it a lot but I’m not sure if she will post today.
        I wrote at the beginning of my review historical (genre) novel. This is very important for me. She isn’t a literary writer. I knew you didn’t like it – I saw your tweet and for the first few pages I thought – oh je – but then it got much better.

        • April 26, 2012 at 7:20 pm | #9

          I like historical novels, usually…(except I loathe Max Gallo and his cheap style)

          • April 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm | #10

            I don’t know Max Gallo. I know you do like historical novels. I think you expected something much more sophisticated. Was this your first?

            • April 26, 2012 at 7:32 pm | #11

              Don’t waste your time with Max Gallo.

              I expected a well-crafted friendship story with a historical background and a bit of feminism.

              Total disappointment.

              It’s my first – and probably last- Chevalier. There are so many great novels to read, I’m not taking the chance to be bored again.

  3. April 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm | #12

    Hi Emma,
    You abandoned your own book club? Shame on you ;-)
    Seriously though, you did the right thing – there’s no point in pressing on if you know from more than 100 pages that it’s not going to interest you. Very occasionally I’ve had a book turn around and surprise me with a great second half, but not often. That said, I usually at least skim to the end.
    I read this last year (on the recommendation of my Dad, who is a fossil enthusiast) and my response was similar to yours, although I had a less strong reaction. For me it was OK, a book I enjoyed some aspects of, such as the descriptions, but a book which didn’t really do anything for me. Now, a year later, I can barely remember enough about it to write a comment. I’ve linked to my review in case you’d like to take a look.

    • April 27, 2012 at 7:14 am | #13

      Hi Andrew,

      Now your comment was in the spam box! Let’s hope the next book will be better.

      I don’t have time to waste on books I don’t like, my reading time is limited. That’s one of the 10 inalienable rights of the reader, after all.

      Your reaction is similar to my friends’. They finished it but had a hard time to answer my simple request “So, since I abandoned it, tell me what happens in the book”.

  4. April 27, 2012 at 10:54 am | #14

    Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book, Emma. I read Caroline’s review first and liked the premise of the book and also what Tracy Chevalier says about her book. It is sad that it didn’t work for you. From your description – long walks on the beach and collecting fossils and nothing much happening – the book reminds me of the movie ‘Before sunrise’ which also has long walks and talks. When I was a student in college, when we were discussing Walter Scott in class, our English professor said this about ‘Quentin Durward’ – “After reading fifty pages we discover that nothing much has happened. Our handsome hero has taken a ride on his horse on the shore of the lake. And this happens in fifty pages!” We laughed at that, at that time, and I have never got around to ‘Quentin Durward’. But luckily, my professor’s comment never put me off from reading Scott and I have to say that I loved his works that I have read like ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘Kenilworth’ and ‘The Talisman’. I am hoping to try Tracy Chevalier’s book sometime and see whether I agree with you or I have different thoughts on it.

    • April 28, 2012 at 2:39 pm | #15

      I have nothing against long descriptions or contemplative books.

      But to me this one was neither a novel with useful descriptions like in Balzac or Zola nor one where nothing apparently happens on the surface but a lot happens in innerminds.

      Except for my book club friends, I’m rather alone in this vision of Remarkable Creatures. Most readers like it.

  5. April 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm | #16

    I haven’t read any Tracey Chevalier, but I had received the impression that she is a successfully literary writer. I asked a friend who has read (nearly) everything, and it was a thumbs down. She won’t be high on my list of who to try next.

    Of course book group books don’t have to be ‘good’ but they do have to attempt to do something. Were you able to have much of a discussion at all? At least it was a collective choice so no-one had to be embarrassed!

    • April 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm | #17

      I’m rather alone in my dislike of this book so it’s nice to hear about someone else.

      The discussion was rather short, actually. We were disappointed by the book, it had the right ingredients to be a great book. Too bad.

  6. October 9, 2012 at 11:07 pm | #18

    Saw your comment on Max’s blog and I was intrigued to see what you wrote about this book. Having read your “billet” I think you were very fair in your opinion of this novel. With 4.5 on Amazon she really has nothing to worry about but if she saw what you and your book group thought of it I am sure she would benefit from your opinions. I was pleased today to get a visit from an author (Vitali Vitaliev) – evidently writers do take notice of what we write.

    • October 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm | #19

      Thanks for reading this billet.

      Writers read blog entries sometimes. I happens rather often to Guy, when you think of it. If you retrieve the posts he writes about dead writers, I bet his rate of writers leaving a comment / posts eligible to writers’ comments is rather high. :-)

  1. April 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm | #1
  2. July 21, 2012 at 11:47 pm | #2

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