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Reviews of Enlightenment by Sarah Perry

Enlightenment by Sarah Perry


A Novel

by Sarah Perry
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  • Jun 4, 2024
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About This Book

Book Summary

A dazzling new work of literary fiction from the author of The Essex Serpent, a story of love and astronomy told over the course of twenty years through the lives of two improbable best friends.

Thomas Hart and Grace Macaulay have lived all their lives in the small Essex town of Aldleigh. Though separated in age by three decades, the pair are kindred spirits—torn between their commitment to religion and their desire to explore the world beyond their small Baptist community. 

It is two romantic relationships that will rend their friendship, and in the wake of this rupture, Thomas develops an obsession with a vanished nineteenth-century astronomer said to haunt a nearby manor, and Grace flees Aldleigh entirely for London. Over the course of twenty years, by coincidence and design, Thomas and Grace will find their lives brought back into orbit as the mystery of the vanished astronomer unfolds into a devastating tale of love and scientific pursuit. Thomas and Grace will ask themselves what it means to love and be loved, what is fixed and what is mutable, how much of our fate is predestined and written in the stars, and whether they can find their way back to each other.

A thrillingly ambitious novel of friendship, faith, and unrequited love, rich in symmetry and symbolism, Enlightenment is a shimmering wonder of a book and Sarah Perry's finest work to date.


Monday: late winter, bad weather. The River Alder, fattened by continuous rain, went in a spate through Aldleigh and beyond it, taking carp and pike and pages torn from pornographic magazines past war memorials and pubs and new industrial parks, down to the mouth of the Blackwater and on in due course to the sea. Toppled shopping trolleys glistened on the riverbank; so also did unwanted wedding rings, and beer cans, and coins struck by empires in the years of their decline. Herons paced like white-coated orderlies in the muddy reeds; and at half past four a fisherman caught a cup untouched since the ink was wet on The Battle of Maldon, spat twice, and threw it back.

Late winter, bad weather, the town oppressed by clouds as low as a coffin lid. A place spoken of in passing, if at all: neither Boudicca nor Wat Tyler had given it a second glance when they took their vengeances to London; and war had reached it only as an afterthought, when a solitary Junkers discharged ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Enlightenment contains many visual elements, for example, the recurring images of the cosmos and the rich descriptions of changing weather in Adleigh. What are some of the dominant symbols in this book and how do they interact with or influence the book's themes?
  2. When Grace returns to Adleigh in the book's middle section, she grapples with simultaneous fear and excitement as she prepares to see her ailing Aunt. Perry writes: "'You can't expect to only feel one thing at a time,' said Thomas, 'though certainly it would be convenient.'" Enlightenment illustrates many pairs of contradicting emotions and the kinds of life events that provoke them. Which other emotional dualities stood out to you, and how do the different characters process them...
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BookBrowse Review


Grace's regulated religious upbringing is disrupted in the middle of a service when an eighteen-year-old boy named Nathan accidentally shatters the church's glass with a golf ball. Cut on her neck by a shard, Grace finds herself falling for Nathan and his world of delights and pleasures (ripped jeans, cigarettes, and contemporary music) alien to the modesty enforced upon her by Bethesda. This intimacy is met with side-eye and consternation even from Thomas, despite his own complicated feelings towards his religious faith for its restrictions on his sexuality. Much of Enlightenment's heartfelt introspection lies with Thomas. Dispersed throughout are fragments of his writing: his articles for the Essex Chronicle relating the laws of physics and astronomy to his own personal and generalized explications on relationships, as well as correspondence addressed to James, with later emails deriving a deeply confessional and anguished tone from the belief that James will never see them. Thomas's meandering philosophical passages on the human condition, tinged with melancholy and self-contemplation, would perhaps not seem out of place in Virginia Woolf...continued

Full Review Members Only (1008 words)

(Reviewed by Isabella Zhou).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
Many of Perry's sentences are startlingly beautiful, creating an atmospheric sense of set­ting and character....There's a hint of the literary romance and mystery of A.S. Byatt's Possession.

Literary Review
No novel is ever perfect, but this one comes close. Read it, then read it again. This is a book full of unexpected wonders.

Financial Times (UK)
A rich, surprising book that dazzles and dizzies the reader...recalls...the erudition of AS Byatt, the ungovernable romances of Iris Murdoch.

Guardian (UK)
Extraordinary and ambitious...What Perry has done in this layered, intelligent and moving book is to construct a kind of quantum novel, one that asks us to question conventional linear narratives and recognise instead what is ever-present in Perry's luminous vision of Essex: truth, beauty and love.

Independent (UK)
A fat, satisfying, grown-up novel – rich in plot, characters, ideas, structure, and atmosphere. Most writers only really deliver on a few of those; in this book about astronomy, faith, and devotional love in all its forms, Perry leaves none behind.

Telegraph (UK)
Like A.S. Byatt's Possession, Enlightenment is a baroque, genre-bending novel of ideas, ghosts and hidden histories. A richly layered epic....a heartfelt paean to the consolations of the sublime, where religion and science meet.

Booklist (starred review)
Stunning...Perry's shimmering prose draws readers gradually into the story, until suddenly, we are captivated by the rich, psychologically complex, and intimate characters as they grapple philosophically with issues of faith, religion, science, astronomy, and love in all its guises.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Perry seamlessly blends an absorbing mystery with her principal characters' personal conflicts to create a narrative as propulsive as it is emotionally resonant.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Enchanting...Perry magnificently evokes the wonder of the cosmos.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

A Shooting Star of American Astronomy: Maria Mitchell

Black-and=white portrait of Maria Mitchell from 1851, showing the astronomer gazing upward through a telescope The central mystery of Sarah Perry's Enlightenment concerns an astronomer, Maria Văduva, and Thomas's uncovering of her hidden scientific contributions. Many real-life historical women partook in exploration of the night sky and space only for their discoveries to be similarly buried or forgotten. One such woman was the nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell was the first American astronomer to discover a comet. She was born on August 1, 1818, the third eldest of ten children, to William and Lydia Mitchell in Nantucket, Massachusetts. As Quakers, Mitchell's parents believed in equal education for all children regardless of gender, in a time when the schooling of girls was highly limited, and sent her to ...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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