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Curiosity [Paperback]

Joan Thomas
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 1 2011
Award-winning novelist Joan Thomas blends fact and fiction, passion and science in this stunning novel set in 19th-century Lyme Regis, England the seaside town that is the setting of both The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jane Austen's Persuasion.

More than 40 years before the publication of The Origin of Species, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker's daughter, found the first intact skeleton of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, and spent a year chipping it from the soft cliffs near Lyme Regis. This was only the first of many important discoveries made by this incredible woman, perhaps the most important paleontologist of her day.

Henry de la Beche was the son of a gentry family, owners of a slave-worked estate in Jamaica where he spent his childhood. As an adolescent back in England, he ran away from military college, and soon found himself living with his elegant, cynical mother in Lyme Regis, where he pursued his passion for drawing and painting the landscapes and fossils of the area. One morning on an expedition to see an extraordinary discovery — a giant fossil — he meets a young woman unlike anyone he has ever met…

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

The best historical novels effortlessly transport their readers back into the past, while less successful attempts bury the reader in musty research and leave the characters to gather dust. Curiosity, the sophomore effort from Winnipeg-based author Joan Thomas, falls decisively in the former camp. Right from its powerful opening, the novel buffets readers with the inescapable momentum of waves against the Dorset cliffs. 

A second book can be daunting for a novelist who made a splash with her first, as Thomas did with Reading By Lightning, which won both the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the First Novel Award. However, Thomas delivers: Curiosity is without question the best novel this reader has come across in the past year. 

Set in the early 19th century, some 40 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Curiosity is based on the lives of two real people: Mary Anning, a cabinetmaker’s daughter who at the age of 12 discovered the fossilized skeleton of an enormous finned creature in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England; and Henry de la Beche, the son of an elite family who ran away from military college and now spends his time painting and making drawings of fossils.     

Thomas alternates between Mary’s story and Henry’s, contrasting their sharply divergent backgrounds and illuminating the common ground they share. Mary’s family scrabbles for survival, sometimes subsisting on barley gruel for supper. Several children in the family perish due to malnutrition. Henry, by contrast, comes from a family of slave owners who live on an estate in Jamaica. While Mary’s sections are largely anchored in the narrative present, Henry’s are more reflective; the chapters told from his perspective have a leisurely lyricism.

By counterpointing the two characters’ perspectives, Thomas deftly underlines their shared fascination with natural history and mutual suspicion of both convention and suffocating evangelical fervour. Mary asks for “a scientific book” and is given a Bible, which she is told is “all the science [she] will ever need.”

Henry eschews both the military and Oxford, choosing to gain his education on the cliffs of Lyme Regis (a setting readers may recognize from Jane Austen’s Persuasion and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Thomas renders this seaside town in lush language: “Piles of bracken lay washed up at the foot of the cliff: frilled sashes the rosy mauve of elderberry, and flags of glistening black, and brilliant torn sea lettuce, all tangled like an extravagant bed of ribbons.”

Henry marries a woman of his class, who does not care about his work, and whose laugh grates on him. He harbours a conflicted love for Mary and an unswerving esteem for her instinctual scientific gifts. For her part, the constraints of the time ensure that Mary’s love for Henry is more torment than joy. She hews to her course, making more significant discoveries, and struggling to maintain her pride despite the indignities of poverty and being “low-born.” Thomas draws these characters with such depth, power, and heart that they remain with the reader long after the novel’s covers are closed.

Mary first learns how fossils are formed from her father. “How could a creature turn to stone?” she asks. “Drop by drop, the flesh washes out and the stone washes in,” he explains. When a natural history professor at Oxford offers Mary and her father £20 for a crocodile skeleton (in his best week as a cabinetmaker, Richard Anning might earn 14 shillings), father and daughter comb the shore, examining every promising layer and crumbling ledge. 

Though Mary is a gifted paleontologist and unearths many important fossils, male scientists exhibit and take credit for her discoveries. One of Thomas’s purposes in beautifully reimagining Mary’s story is to shine a spotlight on this extraordinary, though historically neglected, woman. At the same time, Thomas vividly recreates a world in which scientific questions, theories, and discoveries were beginning to shake the established Biblical version of Creation. 

The subtitle of Curiosity is “A Love Story.”  Readers will savour the moving bond that develops between two unique people whose lives might never have intersected but for their passion for unearthing fossils.      

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Meticulous and deeply affecting. The traps of poverty and class, calcified notions of women’s place in science and society, fall away to reveal the hidden life below: the human mind and heart excavated with delicate and devastating skill."
— Marina Endicott, author of Good to a Fault

"Curiosity is a delight. Set with marvels and rueful comedy, it's a warmly intelligent feat of historical sympathy. Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, with her dead-reckoning gaze, moves through these pages like a muddy-booted angel."
— Greg Hollingshead, author of Bedlam

"Rich. . . . [Thomas] practically burrows into the characters. Hers is magnificent prose that appeals to all the senses without grandiloquence. Equally important, Thomas handles the doctrinal debate raised by the then-budding field of geology with [great] subtlety and nuance."
— The Toronto Star

"Right from its powerful opening, the novel buffets readers with the inescapable momentum of waves against the Dorset cliffs. . . . Curiosity is without question the best novel this reader has come across in the past year. . . . Lush. . . . Thomas draws [her] characters with such depth, power, and heart tha they remain with the reader long after the novel’s covers are closed."
— Quill & Quire [starred review]

"Thomas handles beautifully the class-afflicted nuances of a doomed love story."
— More magazine

"A brilliant, soulful, multi-layered novel. . . . We are drenched in all the sights, sounds and smells of the era [and] become privy to the ecstasy and the agony of the doomed love affair between the two main characters. . . . Lush prose, compelling narrative and vivid characters [make] this one of the best books of the spring publishing season."
Ottawa Citizen

"A precise reconstruction of the social and intellectual world of early 19th-century England. . . .[Thomas’s] research gives the characters depth [and] provides Mary with a delightfully distinctive voice. . . . A beautifully wrought . . . work of literary art."
Winnipeg Free Press

"Extraordinary. . . . A timeless story, and an unforgettable one."
Edmonton Journal

"Gripping. . . . Mary Anning as portrayed by Joan Thomas stands in her own right as a memorable figure, vulnerable and indomitable at the same time."
National Post

"[Curiosity] explores the exquisite fragility of a love story that turns upon the lovers’ unblinking curiosity before the metaphysical change their work uncovers. . . . A beautiful, erudite, and deeply pleasurable work."
The Walrus

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Found Treasure April 4 2010
In addition to being the apt title of this fictional biography of Mary Anning, the finder of fossil curosities, "curiosity" is the driving force behind the prize-winning Manitoba writer, Joan Thomas in her excavation of this self-taught and unsung 19th century British paleontologist. A compelling subject, Anning was marked by a lightning bolt as a baby and, according to local lore, as a consequence was fey, fearless and spoke her mind ever after. With her "anthracite" eyes, she was her father's favoured helper in combing the Dorset seaside for "curies" and the additional income they afforded the poverty-pared family. Presaging Darwin's theory that species evolve, at the age of twelve she unearthed the scientific proof with her first fossil find. With patient dusting, washing and chiselling, it took her months to release the 6,000 year old dolphin-like creature from the limestone and shale cliffs surrounding her home.
Although the setting of the seaside resort of Lyme Regis has had previous literary exposure in "Persuasion" by Jane Austen and in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," Thomas snares and inhabits it as her own. "Piles of bracken lay washed up at the foot of the cliff: frilled sashes the rosy mauve of elderberry, and flags of glistening black, and brilliant, torn sea lettuce, all tangled like an extravagant bed of ribbons." Her fine eye, descriptive ability, meticulous research and use of evocative language from the period create a naturalist realism which grounds Anning in place and time. Like her fossils, she too was compacted in place: by relentless poverty, family responsiblities, by her local clergy who viewed her obsession with dead fossils as Satan's work, by male academics and collectors who claimed her finds as their own and by class-driven societal barriers.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Clubs Will Love It! April 25 2010
Joan Thomas' new novel "Curiosity" reveals a beautifully crafted evocation of Lyme Regis, Dorset at the moment in the early 1800's when fossils made the leap from curiosity cabinet to scientific laboratory.

At the centre of the novel is Mary Anning who, historically, was famous as the first woman fossilist, pre-dating Darwin by several decades. Thomas describes her as having a gift for seeing in the shale and limestone cliffs what has "never been seen or even imagined."

Through Mary, Joan Thomas develops themes that are a natural part of the times: the heartbreak and injustice of the English class system, the challenge of paleontology to nineteenth century religious faith, the confining restraints of gender and class, and above all, the temptations and longings of the human heart.

This novel will have wide appeal among readers who appreciate not only careful background research and fine writing, but also an engrossing story that involves forbidden love, the excitement of fossils found and lost, and unforgettable characters driven by pride, greed and curiosity. This is a great read. Joan Thomas' novel "Curiosity" would be an outstanding choice for book clubs everywhere.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a very good read April 7 2010
By J
I just finished "Curiosity" today and it was everything a good book should be. I was sad to put it down, but also felt a deep satisfaction at its close. Mary Anning and Henry De la Beche's characters are rich, complicated, and compelling. The amount and depth of research that obviously went into this book is very impressive. And on top of the beautifully presented characters and a stunning amount of research, the story that "Curiosity" tells is its strength. The story itself is dramatic, captivating and moving. I highly recommend it!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Oh, she's a history and a mystery, our Mary." Aug. 30 2010
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Mary Anning, the heroine of Joan Thomas' novel, CURIOSITY, was indeed a mystery and has, for a long time, been a mere footnote in the history of paleontology. Her recognition as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew"*) came long after her death in 1847. Basing herself on whatever facts are known about Mary, her family and English society mores and rules in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Thomas has created a multi-layered, convincing and engaging portrait not only of her heroine but also of the social realities of her time.

Mary's obstacles to be acknowledged for her contributions and increasing competence and knowledge were two-fold: she was still a young girl, barely educated and self-taught, when she made the first sizeable prehistoric fossil find, the first specimen of an *Ichthyosaurus*, and she was "lowborn", living in the poorest part of Lyme Regis, on England's southern shore and a centre for "fossilizing" during her lifetime. To support her family, Mary had been selling ammonites and other small petrified treasures as "curiosities" to visitors and "gentlemen geologists". Among the latter was Henry De la Beche, who took a liking to her beyond the curios. Close in age, they met initially when there were still teenagers and over the years he followed her explorations up and down the cliffs of Lyme Regis with great enthusiasm and growing respect for her detailed knowledge of the taxonomy of her fossils. **)

Lyme Regis is defined by the cliffs, with the poor people living close to the seashore. Storms, high tides with resulting flooding of low-lying areas of town are frequent and the cliffs prone to landslides.
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