London 1893. When Cora Seaborne's husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis - a curious, obsessive boy - she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need. When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter's vicar. Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other's lives in ways entirely unexpected. Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.
That said, the characters were instantly intriguing. Cora, freed from an abusive marriage by her husband's death, takes her son and companion to Essex in the pursuit of scientific enlightenment. There she meets friends of friends, Will and Stella Ransome, who become her friends too. They live in a remote village where a 17th century sea serpent is rumored to have reappeared. Cora is convinced that it is a living fossil; Will, the local vicar, is convinced that it is simply superstitious Trouble. Mix in Cora's Marxist companion Martha, who is loved by the very wealthy Spencer, friend of brilliant surgeon Luke, who is in love with Cora - not to mention the Ambroses (those friends of both Cora and the Ransomes) and the four children plus a neighbor's child plus a couple of old men, and you have a stew that is fun to consume but somehow leaves the reader unfilled in the end.
I did like it. I liked Perry's writing in general and admired some of her set pieces. I just wish somehow that it had been more.
The Essex Serpent is impressive, entrancing and atmospheric, full of fascinating, interesting and well drawn characters. I particularly love Cora, she has quite a sense of humour. It is very much a character driven tale. It is beautifully written and extremely evocative of the era. The descriptions are so vivid that I almost felt I was there! The story deals with a variety of themes from science to religion to politics and to love in all its guises.
An engaging, captivating and absorbing read, which I enjoyed tremendously. I can highly recommend it, especially to historical fiction fans. This is the first book I have read by Sarah Perry and it won't be the last.
Many thanks to Lovereading.co.uk for giving me the opportunity to read and review The Essex Serpent, which will be published on 2 June 2016.
I do give Sarah Perry credit for being original. The Essex Serpent is like none of the other neo-Victorian books I've read. It’s an original. That may speak well of Perry’s talent as a writer, but it didn’t do much for me as a reader.
The first problem I found is that it takes a ridiculously long time to get started. Well over 100 pages. There are lots of characters beyond Cora Seaborne, the recently widowed fossil collector, and William Ransome, the country vicar with a big family and devoted wife, Stella. There’s a pair of doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer. And then there’s Charles and Katherine Ambrose, a good-hearted couple who bring the characters together. And then there are various children, most notably Cora’s son Francis, who appears to be autistic, and the Ransomes’ clever daughter, Joanna. And Cora has a companion, Martha, who appears to be in love with her. After Cora’s abusive husband dies, the first hundred pages of the book are mostly the various characters making introductions and eventually meeting. In every case, the characters form ideas of who they will meet, and they are invariably surprised. It gets tedious.
What the book does not show is Cora actually doing much investigating. Instead, it focuses on atmosphere, most notably the hothouse environment of a small community where everything seems uncertain and no one knows what to do about it. Perhaps if I’d known it was more about atmosphere than story, I would have been more patient with the slow (agonizingly slow) burn. As it is, I felt like most of the interesting material was barely touched on when a plot that appears to go nowhere gets all the attention.
The book does get better as it goes on. Passions can’t be denied, and there are consequences to face. By the last third, I was keen to see how it would turn out. But that didn’t quite make up for hundreds of pages of waiting for something to happen.
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.
THE ESSEX SERPENT is the story, loosely, of newly widowed Cora Seaborne, an unconventional Victorian woman who is fascinated by natural history and the budding sciences of the late 19th century. After the death of her abusive husband, this passion takes her to the marshy county of Essex where rumors of a monstrous serpent are circulating along the estuary towns. Here she meets the married reverend William Ransome, and they begin a relationship every bit as unconventional as Cora herself.
I really wanted to love this book and was so excited to get my hands on a copy, but after reading it, felt a little let down. THE ESSEX SERPENT is less a supernatural story about Cora and her adventures to find the Essex serpent, and more an atmospheric snapshot of a time and place. It's beautifully written, but the characters feel underdeveloped, and the multiple side-plots extraneous to the central narrative. It seemed like a book that wanted to be a little of everything, without really knowing what it was. It's frustrating because you felt like with every turn of the page it had the potential to be something really special, but it just never got there.
The Gothic elements here are primarily in the Victorian, rural/estuary Essex setting, and in the conflict and play between Science and Superstition.
The characters from the city are all doctors or scientists or otherwise "modern", basically the type to eschew superstition, including the central character Cora, who aspires to be a natural scientist and likes to collect rocks and fossils. Her companion Ruth is a socialist bent on fixing the city's housing problem for the impoverished, her son Francis is likely on the autistic spectrum and appears to distrust emotion and certainly doesn't display any himself, and her dear friend Luke is a brilliant surgeon who takes on cutting edge techniques and cases.
When Cora's husband dies, she takes her son and Ruth to Essex to spend time in nature and maybe discover some rare fossils. Here, especially in the small country, seaside village of Aldwinter, are the representatives of Superstition. Vicar Will is a direct contrast to Luke - equally brilliant in school, but choosing to dedicate himself to religion in a backwater town. His wife Stella is (superficially) a delicate, flighty person, wholly unlike Ruth, and their eldest child Joanna first appears when she is attempting to cast a magic spell to hurry spring with her best friend and brother. Essex is the site of ruins from an earthquake many years before, and in Aldwinter especially there are rumors of a monster, some kind of sea serpent, that is threatening the village.
So and thus, London and its people are modernity and science. Essex and the people there are the past and superstition. The two mingle, not just because of Cora. The science goes to Essex and muddles things up, the irrationality of the country finds its way to the city. The story finds a happy medium, of sorts, as it examines the flaws of the two perspectives, and the rightness of each as well. Each character moves towards that middle by the end.
I enjoyed the process of the story and the evocative imagery. It is fairly vividly late Victorian, which was enjoyable to read (though I wondered about the lack of servants anywhere!). I appreciated that even as steeped as it is in the 19th century thought and what was known of the world, nods are given to modern sensibilities - one character is quietly queer, mass hysteria is shown from a recent perspective, but also many of the medical or science things we now know are bunk are treated that way.
The themes ended up feeling uneven and superficial. I couldn't really figure out what the author was trying to say, and ultimately felt that finding a middle balance was a weak way to do it, especially with the book being so Gothic. I wanted more conviction and more strongly Good/Bad character dichotomies. (Which I admit I did like the way everyone is cast in grey...that's just not what I want from this kind of book.) Every main character has their plot tied up to show them finding a new middle ground and how they're growing as people, but none of that felt much like an ending. It's almost like the book just fizzled out, or ran out of things to say, or something. The resolution of Cora's love story plot, too, was frustratingly middle-of-the-road, when I wanted it to have a stronger statement. Though, again, I do appreciate the shades-of-grey/real-people-are-like-this elements of it.
I think I also am bristling against the treatment of Science vs. Superstition (or Religion or Emotion or whatever) that ultimately organizes the plot threads. It's almost a feeling of Modernity being framed as less good than the wholesome religion and country living - even though the whole book is about how people need the logic and steadiness to counter runaway base emotions and thoughtlessness. (But also, life isn't living without emotion. It was kind of annoying that the apparently autistic child's happy ending is when he shows affection for his mother.)
So, to sum up, I like the idea of this book, and enjoyed reading it, but I did not like the thematic conclusions it makes and wish that it had taken a more vocal stance about them, without being so middle-of-the-road. I wish it were more like those Sensational novels of the 19th century, with a clear Good/Bad character division, and not so much of a downplaying of modernity and science in order to create that balance.
According to GoodReads, this book has been nominated for eight awards to date, but I'm afraid I found it rather slow and it failed to hold my interest. On several occasions I had to rewind the audiobook as I had lost my train of thought, which left me wondering if this might be a book that is better read than listened to.
The central character is Cora Seaborne, who is narrated with a most peculiar accent. As the story begins, she is widowed by her overbearing older husband, but left well provided for. She had done her duty as a wife but felt relieved to be free of him. Able to do as she pleased, she dropped all female pretenses and moved to Aldwinter, Essex, where a serpent was rumoured to have been seen in the dark marsh waters. Cora is fascinated by nature, and by fossils in particular; she hopes the serpent will turn out to be a living fossil.
In Aldwinter she is drawn to the local vicar, Will Ransome, with whom she spars about many topics, including the relevance of religion.
Set in the 1890's, this novel also includes references to social housing and surgical breakthroughs, but these elements felt a bit superfluous and incomplete.
Many secondary characters play a part and of these I was most drawn to the poor doctor who attended Cora's husband and who fell hook-line-and-sinker for Cora, and to Francis, Cora's (probably autistic) son, who spent hours counting the feathers in a pillow, both forwards and backwards.
I have to say, the cover art is divine, five stars to the artist who designed it.
But then, and I had a feeling this would happen, I clicked with a character ('Isn't it odd how strangers come over the threshold and you never know what they might become') - Luke Garrett, the talented but taciturn surgeon (who of course has a crush on Cora, gag). I imagined him to sort of look like David Bamber as Mr Collins in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, which isn't exactly heart throb material, but he also has that underdog vibe that I love, like Childermass in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I was nearly in tears when *improbable event* struck him down, and then Cora very nearly literally twisted the knife.
I think characterisation saves this novel from abject boredom. Apart from Cora and the slappable vicar, the personalities are all believable and mostly sympathetic, with my favourites being Luke, his hapless mate Spencer, and Stella, the vicar's wife. And even Cora is a strong, if forced, heroine who stays true to her beliefs - no sickening happy ever after at least.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Thanks!
For a story so concerned with pain - physical, emotional and all pains remembered - it's enjoyable, and satisfying. Maybe because it's also about surviving and carrying on? Recommended.
Starting at New year, it begins with deaths, that of an unknown man and Cora's husband. Frankly, the world seems to be better off without the second of these, as there are indications that he was physically and mentally abusive to Cora during their marriage. She describes it has he shaped her, yes, but I would use another description. However, with his death, she begins a new, freer, phase of her life. In this, she contrives to entangle a number of people, all of who find her frustrating and beguiling by turns. I get the former, the latter, not so much. She annoyed me, with her faith in science, but then that seemed not to allow for any other way of seeing the world. She was somewhat selfish and unfeeling, seeming to accept the attention lavished on her, but be reluctant to be more than a recipient of this. She struck me as shallow.
The cast of characters in this novel is quite extensive and varied. Some of those I found a lot more interesting than Cora herself, but she sits at the centre of this, like a serpent, coiling herself around people and squeezing. The serpent of the title turns out to not be what it is imagined to be, and it is in interesting view of the way myths are made.
It was enticing enough to draw me in, but I found the main character to be too unappealing to really care all that much how her story turned out.
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.
While I enjoyed the book and found it to be very readable and easy to get through, I found myself a bit disappointed after I finished it. While I liked the characters, I did not care for the various love triangles and "will they or won't they" story lines. Also, the end just felt a bit abrupt and like everything was tied up a little too nicely. I guess I was just expecting a bit more from a book that I thought was very promising.
Overall, I still think it was worth a read, especially if you are interested in Victorian-era historical fiction or myths.
As the novel begins, Cora is widowed. Her husband was abusive, and this is the story of her finding her way. She is finely drawn, alive, but flawed.
Perry's vivid descriptions, from the Essex country to the London tenements, bring the era to life. This is the best kind of historical fiction.