It's been all CFPs, all the time, lately on the Attic, so I thought I'd mix it up a bit and tell you about a good book I read recently. I was lent Joan Thomas's Curiosity, and although I was initially hesitant, I really enjoyed it.
I am not a fan of historical fiction, nor do I like it when authors insert a love story where there is dubious foundations for one. It all reads like fanfiction to me, and if I wanted to read that, I have my own sources! But the person who lent me the book vouched for its quality, and from the first page, I was a believer.
Curiosity tells the story of Mary Anning, a 19th century girl who, with her family, hunted and sold fossils in Lyme Regis. She is said to have been the inspiration for the tongue-twister 'she sells sea shells by the sea shore.' Anning was poor and uneducated, but had a talent for finding rare creatures, and was lucky enough to have the patronage of more educated and wealthy men of science and influence who purchased specimens from her. The novel traces Anning's early days, and her encounters with local fossil hunters; it speculates about a romantic relationship between her and Henry de la Beche, the president of the British Geological Society. It includes touching descriptions of her wretched family life, as well as vividly painting the closed circles of society in Lyme Regis and beyond. The author researched Anning's life in detail, but the book does not read like a dry biography, nor like a Mary Sue potboiler; it manages, through its rich language and poetic descriptions, to evoke the life of a woman, who through force of circumstance, was not able to achieve her potential. It is a fitting tribute to a talent that shaped modern understandings of natural history, and a timely reminder that the rights of women were hard-won.
A few weeks after I finished this novel, I chanced upon a more scholarly biography of Anning: Shelley Emling's The Fossil Hunter is just one of several books (including children's books!) on the topic. While normally, I would have relished the chance to learn more, I felt like Curiosity had covered the salient points, all in an engaging and informed way.
If you are interested in the history of science, paleontology, nineteenth-century natural history, or women's history generally, this is a lovely way to spend some time contemplating these themes while being entertained with a good story.
Next up from me: Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence (2010). What museum-related novels have you been reading lately?