The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I started reading this book in April, but only finished it last week. This was the May read for my work bookclub, and the Waterstones 2016 book of the year, so I was really excited to read it. 

From the blurb:

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.

This is a very strange book. 

It’s 1895 and Coral Seaborne has just lost her abusive husband to cancer. The doctor who looked after her husband, an odd man known as “The Imp” has fallen in love with Cora, and grown fond of her son, Francis, who seems to have a learning or personality disability. 

Cora has become obsessed with the natural sciences during her mourning period, and learning of the local legend, The Essex Serpent, heads into the country to see if she can make a marvellous discovery.  

Whilst in Essex, Cora delights in behaving contrary to the social expectations of the time, and setting the whole county talking.

Her best friend and personal maid Martha is very worried about Cora’s behaviour, particularly when she becomes close to the very popular and very married Reverend Will Ransome…

There were things I liked about this book, and things that I found incredibly irritating. The period details were very good, and gave you a real sense of the era. The descriptive passages were atmospheric and beautifully written, but did go on a bit in places. 

Overall the book felt anti-climactic. It feels like nothing happens of any real meaning. The first 50 pages were very difficult to get through, then there were 100 pages of scene setting; 200 pages in the middle were incredibly fast paced, and several plot threads were tied up. 

The most interesting character was Martha, and there was a subplot about socialism and feminism that didn’t really go anywhere. She was a bit of a hypocrite, and not very likeable, but this made her more compelling. 

Cora epitomises the stereotyped rich society wife; she does what she likes, without really thinking through the consequences, or caring what anyone else thinks about it. I like her gumption, but she is inherently selfish, and allows herself to be defined by the men in her life. 

Then the ending… honestly, it was such a let down. 

If you like historical fiction with descriptive prose, then you will love this book. It just wasn’t for me… I gave it 3/5 stars because it was very well written, I just didn’t like it.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


Stephani Xx


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