The Essex Serpent: Book summary and reviews of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
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  • Published in USA  Jun 2017
    432 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

Costa Book Award Finalist and the Waterstones (UK) Book of the Year 2016

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

When Cora Seaborne's brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy's nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.

While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year's Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.

These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart - an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible ... you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I've read in years" (Daily Telegraph, London).

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Book-discussion groups will have a field day with the imagery, the well-developed characters, and the concepts of innocence, evil, and guilt. Like Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton (2008), the appearance of a sea monster sheds more light on humanity than on natural history, while the sudden revelation of a creature of the deep heralds change and revelation, as in Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide (2005)." - Booklist

"Starred Review. The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry's prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things should prepare to fall under Perry's spell and into her very capable hands. Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance." - Kirkus

"Like John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, whose Lyme Regis setting gets a shout-out here, this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay. Cora makes for a fiercely independent heroine around whom all the other characters orbit." - Publishers Weekly

"I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvelous novel about the workings of life, love and belief, about science and religion, secrets, mysteries, and the complicated and unexpected shifts of the human heart - and it contains some of the most beautiful evocations of place and landscape I've ever read. It is so good its pages seem lit from within. As soon as I'd finished it I started reading it again." - Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk

The information about The Essex Serpent shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Reader Reviews

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Deborah M. (Chambersburg, PA)

Best Reading Experience So Far This Year
What a wonderful novel! When I began it, I was afraid it was going to turn out to be some kind of fantasy or magical realism--neither of which I enjoy. But this is a novel as driven by character and ideas as by plot, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. Sarah Perry also has a gift for creating an atmosphere that totally draws the reader into a specific time and place--in this case, London and the small Essex town of Aldwinter in the 1890s.

Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, seems to have ambivalent feelings about her deceased husband, a wealthy, powerful, but cruel man. In some ways, he shaped her into a new person and a new life; but he also stifled any sense of self that she might have developed. Now on her own, she decides to follow her whims, the primary one being to study paleontology on an amateur level. With her companion Martha, an early feminist with reformist tendencies, and her odd 12-year old son Frankie (who today would likely be considered mildly autistic), Cora packs off to Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning had set off a craze for fossil hunting. But when rumors surface that a strange sea creature, last seen in 1669, may have reappeared in the waters near the small town of Aldwinter, Cora can't resist the opportunity to find something truly remarkable. Her friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose, wealthy aristocrats, provide an introduction to the local parson, Will Ransome, a married father of three with a similar interest in fossils. Will and Cora embark on an unexpected and passionate friendship that threatens to become much more. Their debates on the conflicts between science and faith shape the heart of the novel.

But this is not the only theme running through 'The Essex Serpent.' There are questions about the nature of love in its many forms: friendship, passion, loyalty, empathy, responsibility, parenthood, and more. These are fleshed out through a series of wonderfully drawn secondary characters: Will's wife Stella, an ethereal creature whose illness pulls her into a strange faith of her own making that centers on all things blue; Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon in love with Cora; his devoted friend George Spencer, a wealthy young physician who spends his fortune on charitable projects to impress Cora's companion Martha; Frankie, who seems incapable of loving anyone; and the quirky townsfolk of Aldwinter. Questions of class are never far from the surface; Charles Ambrose, for example, believes in a kind of simplified social Darwinism that keeps individuals in the places they are meant to be.

All these elements, characters, and ideas twist and turn and intertwine like the body of the elusive serpent while the plot carries the reader along for the ride. There's nary a dull moment here, and a good number of keen insights and startlingly beautiful passages. 'The Essex Serpent' is an all-around winner, the best reading experience I've had so far this year.

Nikki M. (Fort Wayne, IN)

Seriously good read!
I can see why this has so much buzz across the pond. I am sure it will see much success here upon its release. The characters were amazingly realistic and fleshed out. Pick this one up and give it a few pages to pull you in, you won't regret it!

Susan B. (Rutledge, MO)

excellent intriguing read
This book wasn't quite what I expected, but I really enjoyed what I got: a well-written, intriguing, sometimes creepy, feels-real story. It is very much written for an English audience-- there were many historical, place and other references that I as an American didn't get. This may be a feature or a bug for you, but I found that it didn't get in the way of my enjoying the story.

Lynda C. (Sault Sainte Marie, MI)

The Essex Serpent
Enjoying The Essex Serpent has been one of the most outstanding reading experiences I have had in a very long time. I read many, many books across a variety of genres and this one is truly superior.
I found myself entranced by the incandescent use of language - and either stopped frequently to savour a word, a sentence, or an idea; or read on a few pages and went back to re-read something that had caught my attention. This is something that rarely happens in my reading experience.
The characters - all of the characters - are unforgettable!
Each character is so finely drawn and complete in their physical, psychological, and emotional description it is as if they are right before you, living out the story line right now and in vivid color.
This is a beautiful novel, a multi-layered, intellectually satisfying novel. This novel made me think on many different levels and about many different things...and I became lost in its world.
Everybody should read this one!

Eileen F. (Green Valley, AZ)

The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry has created a novel with very visual descriptions of her characters and the environments they are in. The characters are all unique and most represent different value systems. The story shows how people can be influenced by rumor and tales of the unknown.

Terri O. (Chapel Hill, NC)

Highly recommended
The Essex Serpent is a beautifully written novel that explores such themes as love and friendship, science and religion, reason and superstition, freedom and powerlessness, and poverty and wealth, set against the divergent backdrops of bustling London and rural Essex in the late 1800s.

Sarah Perry skillfully brings to life a cast of late Victorian characters that are far from the buttoned-up prudes one might expect, endowing them with complicated interior and exterior lives. They seem both of their time and timeless, and the complex relationships among the characters are presented with both depth and compassion. The many forms of love and friendship are deftly explored and even though the desires of many of the characters are mutually exclusive, somehow the novel leaves one feeling optimistic.

This book would be a great choice for book clubs and would appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Charles Dickens.

...14 more reader reviews

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Sarah Perry's first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize, and won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award. She was born in Essex and lives in Norwich, England.

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