Published: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 4:22 p.m.

Tracy Chevalier sits in the Victorian grandeur of London's Museum of Natural History next to the skeletal remains of a giant eye, the shape and size of a pineapple ring.

"It's so big it's kind of funny. ...It's like a cartoon. But that's often the quality of dinosaurs. Everything about them seems to be exaggerated, their teeth, their size, their claws," says the author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

The eye belongs to a plesiosaur and was found in the English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800s by amateur fossil hunter and seller Mary Anning - the subject of Chevalier's new novel, "Remarkable Creatures."

In the book, working-class Anning meets the middle-class unmarried Elizabeth Philpot and through their mutual love for fossils, the two strike up a strange camaraderie.

Anning is on the hunt for what she believes to be a giant crocodile similar to one she found in 1811 when she was 12, which later rocked the scientific world.

Then one fateful day, she finds herself staring into the eye of the strangest beast she's ever encountered.

"The eye is enormous," says Chevalier.

"When you look at it, you realize the minute her and Elizabeth saw it they must have known it couldn't be a crocodile."

In "Remarkable Creatures," which comes out in the United States on Tuesday, Anning's finds challenge ideas about the world's creation and stimulate debate over our origins.

But in an arena dominated by men, she is soon reduced to a serving role, facing prejudice from the academic community, vicious gossip from neighbors and the heartbreak of forbidden love.

This provides the central narrative as Anning emerges to become a famous fossil hunter, with friend and protector Philpot to defend her against the men who try to take credit for her finds.

Chevalier says before she discovered Anning's story "in a little dinosaur museum in the English town of Dorchester," she really knew nothing about things such as plesiosaurs.

"I'm as surprised as anyone else. ... My background is not science. It's art or literature, but I always like to try to challenge myself and go in a new direction with books, otherwise I get in a rut and write the same thing," she says.

"I want to keep readers guessing, and myself guessing, too, so it was like opening up a whole new world that I spent two and a half years finding out about."

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