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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent (2016)

by Sarah Perry

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, he celebrates her newfound freedom by surrendering to her Victorian scientific curiosity by hunting for the mythical Essex Serpent together with a local vicar, who, despite being married, grows closer to Cora than either of them had anticipated. This is written beautifully, if somewhat too flowery for my taste, and has a very interesting premise. Unfortunately, the story veers into territory that is within my peeves area, so I couldn't fully enjoy it. My two biggest problems are (1) that the main characters "fall in love;" is it ever possible to have characters be simpatico without falling in love - the story would have been better for it, I promise. (2) The most interesting story line, the one of the Serpent, has a lot of build-up and strange events connected to it, but ultimately goes nowhere; I'm especially irked that the school-incident, which I found wonderfully creepy, is never explained. It is an engaging read overall, but I wish more of the scattered threads would have been tied together at the end. ( )
  -Eva- | Jun 26, 2017 |
It’s been quite a while since I read a book so satisfying that I was ready to read it again when I finished. Sarah Perry’s “The Essex Serpent” is such a book.

Other reviewers have surely recounted the storyline: wealthy widow journeys to Essex to chase down rumors of a ‘serpent,’ joins forces with the local vicar in her search, and their lives are changed forever.

But there is so much more to this book reminiscent of a Victorian novel. First, there’s the delightful characterization. Cora, the widow, is a Victorian Elizabeth Bennet with a dash of Shakespeare’s Rosalind. She’s intelligent, independent, thoughtless, tactless, loving, and damaged. Perry doesn’t stoop to adjectives - she displays her characters and lets their actions and thoughts speak for them. The vicar, William Ransome, is a happy family man; he is steadfast in his faith, rather conventional, yet intrigued by the nonconformist widow. Theirs is a complex relationship - that much sought ‘marriage of true minds’ - that is as difficult to maintain as it is to explain.

There are no ‘minor’ characters in the novel. All are important, well developed, and intriguing.

But there’s more to a great novel than characterization and Perry supplies it. The novelist skillfully weaves the themes of Victorian and 21st Century life into her story. The conflict between faith and science, the fair distribution of wealth, and personal responsibility are explored.

But, most of all, this is an enjoyable read that I’m afraid that my review does not do justice. Cora Seaborne with her lack of pretension, shining intellect, and stirring curiosity is a heroine for the ages.

(A reviewer's copy was provided by the publisher.) ( )
  dianaleez | Jun 25, 2017 |
Cora Seaborne is a recent widow to an abusive husband and is reveling in her new found freedom. Dr. Luke Garrett saw Mr. Seaborne through his illness and is now enraptured with Mrs. Seaborne. He is also on the verge of performing open heart surgery, if only he had a willing participant. Taken with new found spirit, Cora travels to Essex with her son, Francis and friend Martha where there have been renewed rumors of a serpent haunting the town. There, in the small parish of Aldwinter, Cora meets Will, the local vicar, his beautiful and frail wife Stella and their children. Cora and Will, seemingly opposites, and with very different views of the serpent, strike up an unlikely friendship. As Cora spends more time in Aldwinter, the mystery and hysteria surrounding the serpent grows challenging the bounds of friendship in all directions.

The Essex Serpent is haunting and magical while being very firmly set in the reality of Victorian England. Rich and vivid writing makes the scenery and characters jump from the page. I was transfixed with Cora from the moment that she watched her husband die with a mixture of resolve, hope and giddiness. I loved that Cora was inspired by Mary Anning, a real paleontologist and so happily took up digging through the mud of a small farming village so unlike her London home. The mystery of the Essex serpent itself provides a mystery as well as a platform for the small parish of Aldwinter. I was intrigued by the real accounts of this 'Strange News Out of Essex,' but even more so by the fictional characters reactions to the serpent. Everything from hysteria to disbelief is displayed in the parish. However, it was not the serpent that was really the main focus of the book, but the unlikely friendships of the characters and how they progress. As much as I loved Cora and Will's friendship, I was interested in Stella and Frankie as well as Martha and Joanne. The Essex Serpent also shone light on a variety of Victorian London issues: advances in medical technology, housing crises, poverty, women's rights and gaining knowledge of the environment. Overall, a curious and addicting tale with as many facets as the serpent's scales that will be sure to take you on a delightful journey.

This book was received for free in return for an honest review. ( )
  Mishker | Jun 21, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, no one in the household is sorry. He was a sadistic and abusive man, who leaves Cora with scars both physical and mental to remember him by. But he also leaves her with a bit of money, so she no longer has to stay in the mansion with the bad memories; she, her autistic son Francis, and her socialist companion Martha move to a village in Essex, where she hopes to find fossils like Mary Anning is doing. There she meets the Ransomes: William the vicar, his wife Stella, and their three children. Cora and Stella immediately take to each other as if they had grown up together; Cora and William find themselves in a different sort of friendship, arguing in a jovial way, frequently via letter. But all is not fun and games in Aldwinter; the legendary Essex sea monster (a real bit of Essex folklore) seems to be back, drowning young men, stealing goats, and generally scaring the people silly even though no one has seen it.

This is a book you climb into and live in with the characters. The descriptions of nature, of people, and especially of Stella are the literary equivalent of pre-Raphaelite paintings; exquisitely detailed and saturated with life. There is a great cast of characters, and intellectual and social issues are explored. I loved this novel; there is a lot of depth to it. Five stars. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Jun 19, 2017 |
Sometimes a book washes over you and you find yourself stunned by everything about it. Such is Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, a novel about science and faith, desire and need, superstition and truth. Even trying to reduce it to these few paltry words makes it seem less than it is, encompassing so much more than can be easily articulated. It really is a magnificent and impressive Victorian tale.

Cora Seaborne is newly widowed and she's not shaping up to be a good widow any more than she was a good wife or a good mother. Cora was dutiful but nothing more to the wealthy and well-known man who broke her down and shaped her into the woman he expected her to be. She can't possibly mourn his loss, except perhaps for their odd, young son Francis, a child with whom she has never been able to connect. Widowhood is, strangely enough, freedom for her: freedom from convention and constraints, freedom to pursue her interest in fossils and natural history, freedom to become the inquisitive and intelligent woman she is. With her newfound freedom, Cora leaves London for the wilds of Essex. Taking her son and her beloved companion Martha with her, Cora wants to uncover fossils, perhaps even a living fossil, in the salty estuaries of the country. Through the introduction of a mutual friend, Cora meets William Ransome, the vicar of Aldwinter, a small town sinking into the superstition and myth of the return of the Essex Serpent. Will is certain that the myth is just that, a myth, not a portent of evil or a sign of end times. But his parishioners ratchet up the fear with every further story, every unexplained disappearance or death of man or beast, and with nebulous almost sightings out on the Blackwater. Cora is not so quick to dismiss the possibility of the beast's existence, eager to uncover scientific evidence that might prove its existence. So is set the dichotomy between faith and science and although Cora and Will's beliefs are so at odds, they forge a deep and abiding intellectual relationship arguing their respective stances even as they respect the other. In fact, in many ways, they are each one half of the other.

The story is not just one of faith versus science but one of relationship and connection. Even the novel's secondary characters, Luke Garrett, George Spencer, Martha, Will's beautiful, tubercular wife Stella, the Ambroses, the Ransome children, and Francis and their ties to Cora are vital to the unwinding of this philosophical, complex, seductive, and character driven story. There is an air of Gothic menace and light foreboding that permeates the pages leaving the reader uncertain how the tale of the serpent will ultimately pan out. Is it real or is it imagined? Perry has written an exquisite novel, full of beautiful, unsettling writing. Her portrayal of Cora as magnetic, unconventional, and rebelling against the usual role of women is thoughtfully done, as is her depiction of Will as both publicly close-minded and privately curious. The details of Stella's blue collection, the restraint with which Perry draws the peculiarities of Francis and his bits and bobs, and the unconscious way in which Cora collects the hearts of those around her is understated and effectively disturbing. Perry pulls in other advances of the time, that of health care and medicine and views of poverty and housing through the secondary characters in ways that don't overwhelm the primary theme but add historical verisimilitude and which weave seamlessly into the whole. The dense and atmospheric prose is leavened with unexpected humor lurking within serious paragraphs. Truly a brilliant, thoughtful novel, this is multi-layered and compelling and should be read slowly and savoured. But be warned that it is very much a modern rendering of a Victorian novel. It will creep up on you until you are compelled to finish it, but it might take a while before you realize that you are completely trapped by its hypnotic telling. ( )
  whitreidtan | Jun 19, 2017 |
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If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.

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For Stephen Crowe
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A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.
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