Published by Custom House on June 6, 2017
Source: the publisher
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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is brilliant. I had no idea that I was in for such a rare treat when I began this book, but I grew so fond of these characters over the course of the pages that I feel genuinely sad that I’ve finished with the story.
Cora Seaborne is not sad that she is now a widow. Her husband was quite controlling, and without him, she is free to enjoy science and learning again. Needing a change of scenery, Cora takes her son Francis and Martha, her close friend and nanny, and they move from London to Aldwinter, in Essex. Shortly after her arrival, Cora learns that the legendary Essex Serpent is rumored to have returned to the area and that the locals are terrified. Cora welcomes the challenge to use science to get to the bottom of the mystery.
While investigating the muddy water banks one day, she meets Will Ransome. Will is the local pastor and is quite devout. At this particular meeting, he is rescuing an animal from where it is stuck in the mud. Cora helps him and her first impression of Will isn’t necessarily that positive. However, it isn’t long before she meets him again at his own home and the two strike up a rather close, unconventional friendship. Even though it isn’t exactly normal for a widow and a man of the church to have a friendship like theirs in the 1890’s, Will’s wife Stella doesn’t seem to mind; she is as smitten with Cora as everyone else seems to be.
Friendship is one of the greatest things about this book. I absolutely loved the way Author Sarah Perry explored friendship in all of its forms here. There are traditional friendships between regular women, between school children, between adults and children, and between people of the opposite genders – both married and unmarried. Some of these relationships are very normal, but the lines between some of these friendships get blurry at times. I think that is partly what makes the story so interesting: that friendships can often be, or lead to, the most complicated and messy parts of life. In any case, I loved that the author was able to tenderly write every relationship in this story.
Another wonderful thing about The Essex Serpent is the characterization. The characters in this book are just fantastic. They didn’t feel like characters, in fact – they felt like people. It took me a while to learn who each person was, particularly the secondary characters. But once I knew them, I loved them all. Every one. I had a particular fondness for Luke Garrett and for Will Ransome, both very different in personality and how they’re portrayed but each wonderfully written. They both kept me on my toes in terms of what they were thinking and what they were up to in the story. So did Cora, but I think that goes without saying.
And Cora. How I love her! This is a woman that has lived heartbreak, which was on the inside of a controlling marriage. Once out of it and free to pursue a life of her own, she didn’t feel the need to conform to what society’s idea of what a women should be. She challenged the very idea of beauty by wearing big boots and a jacket made for men, by digging in the mud and having dirty nails (for science!), and by engaging in scientific debate with people around her (including men!) and being able to back up her thoughts and theories. Cora is badass in every sense of the word.
The foundation upon which Cora’s friendship with Will is built is their debate over The Essex Serpent, or science vs. faith. Which is the truth? Is there room for both where The Essex Serpent is concerned? Like with many friendships, their conversation goes on and on, and on and on – and it eventually becomes…awkward.
I didn’t want to watch, but I also couldn’t turn away. I also loved this about the story.
If there is anything at all that I could change, I think I would figure out a way to make it easier to catalog the characters in my head, because there are a couple of characters that feel somewhat similar until the story really gets going and each one acquires his own voice. But that’s such a small thing, really, and didn’t keep me from enjoying this book in any way.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is one of my favorite books this year, easily. The further into the story that I read, the more I loved it. And the more I think about it after finishing, the more I love it still. The author’s control over language is just lovely. This book has more of a polished, literary feel than the books that I often read, but interestingly, this story never feels too lofty or cumbersome. It took me a little longer to read and I also reread several parts, but that is because it is descriptive and I wanted to spend more time with the language. I recommend this one. I just do. I can’t wait to see what awards it will win.
ABOUT SARAH PERRY
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.