Books: The Coral Thief

I enjoy historical fiction, and a book about a young medical student in Paris in the summer of 1815 sounded interesting. Despite having studied French for five years, I never learned much of the history of France between the French Revolution and World War II. But it was the state of medicine – and science in general – during that period that interested me more.

I would have liked it if more of the book had focused on those aspects, though the background on political and social changes in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon were also fairly interesting. For a while, though, I wasn’t sure I liked the book at all. So much of it is taken up with the narrator’s passion for a woman twice his age. I think I mentioned in a previous book review that I don’t care for books told from the point of view of a naive young man, as it’s difficult to find much to admire in him.

His lover, the coral thief of the novel‘s title, is an unusual character. The book takes frustratingly long to get to telling her story, but as it emerges it explores the opportunities and the limitations of a woman in France at the end of the eighteenth century. Lucienne witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution (and narrowly escaped the guillotine herself), then (disguised as a man if I understood correctly) travelled as part of an expedition collecting specimens for anatomical study, and somewhere along the way became a skilled thief. She is also now a devoted (single) mother.

Daniel admires her for her curiosity and knowledge of natural history, as she opens his mind to new ideas that his conservative family and teachers back home would have condemned as heresy. (But even more he is very much smitten with her as a woman, and makes what he himself admits were foolish decisions, which – for good or ill -changed the course of his life.) This is the period when transformism, an idea that would later become known as evolution, was beginning to spread, especially in an intellectual center like Paris, from there to spread as foreign students took these radical ideas home with them.

Naturalists at the time were sharply divided on the issue, and Daniel works for the distinguished Georges Cuvier who dismisses the ideas of Lamarck as poetry and nonsense. (Lamarck was in fact mistaken in thinking that acquired traits could be passed on to one’s progeny.) Daniel’s fellow students, on the other hand, not only take transformism as scientific fact but attempt to turn it into an argument for social reform also.

Having myself visited Paris, I took an interest in the descriptions of the city. Of course it was vastly different in 1815 from the city I saw in 1983, but I can at least visualize some of the prominent landmarks (Notre Dame, the Louvre). I was surprised, however, to learn about the vast subterranean quarries that run beneath the city. As it is forbidden to explore them, however (presumably for safety reasons), I suppose it is not so surprising that I heard nothing of them during my visit.

One other interesting side-note is about the chief of police, Jagot, to whom Daniel reports the theft of his corals and other valuable items at the start of the novel. As Daniel comes to know and then trust the thief and even to help her in a daring heist, Jagot of course becomes a threat to him also. While Jagot is fictional, he is based on a real man, Eugène François Vidocq, a criminal turned director of the Sûreté Nationale (today the French National Police).

While listening to the book, I did not recognize the story of Vidocq in the fictional Jagot. But the author’s afterword gives the name Vidocq, and I remembered reading about him in The Science of Sherlock Holmes. As a matter of fact he was mentioned in several chapters, so significant a figure was he in the history of making a science of police work.

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