The Essex Serpent
June 2017 Indie Next List
— Tina Ontiveros (W), Klindt's Booksellers, The Dalles, OR
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Summer 2018 Reading Group Indie Next List
— Megan Bell, Underground Books, Carrollton, GA
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A Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction * Winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year and overall Book of the Year *A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of The Year * Waterstones Book of the Year * Costa Book Award Finalist
“A novel of almost insolent ambition—lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate...it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home.” —New York Times
London, 1893. 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 an unhappy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space, she leaves the metropolis for coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year-old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
Once there, they hear rumors that after nearly three hundred years, the mythical Essex Serpent, a fearsome creature that once roamed the marshes, has returned. When a young man is mysteriously killed on New Year’s Eve, the community’s dread transforms to terror. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, certain that what locals think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species.
Eager to investigate, she is introduced to parish vicar William Ransome, who is equally suspicious of the rumors but for different reasons: a man of faith, he is convinced the alarming reports are caused by moral panic, a flight from the correct and righteous path. As Cora and William attempt to discover the truth about the Essex Serpent’s existence, these seeming opposites find themselves inexorably drawn together in an intense relationship that will change both of them in ways entirely unexpected. And as they search for answers, Cora’s London past follows her to the coast, with striking consequences.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, The Essex Serpent masterfully explores questions of science and religion, skepticism and faith, but it is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different—and surprising—guises it can take.
Praise For The Essex Serpent: A Novel…
“A novel to relish: a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author.” — Sarah Waters
“Richly enjoyable... Ms. Perry writes beautifully and sometimes agreeably sharply... The Essex Serpent is a wonderfully satisfying novel. Ford Madox Ford thought the glory of the novel was its ability to make the reader think and feel at the same time. This one does just that.” — Wall Street Journal
“Gloriously alive.” — NPR
“The most delightful heroine since Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice…Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past—its manners, ideals and speech—that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us…By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature ‘from the illuminated margins of a manuscript’: friendship.” — Washington Post
“A novel of almost insolent ambition--lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate...it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home.” — New York Times
“A fabulous summer read...If Middlemarch heroine Dorothea Brooke had heard of dinosaurs, she might have gone tromping through the salt marshes with Cora Seaborne.” — Christian Science Monitor
“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. Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The vivid, often frightening imagery… and the lush descriptions… create a magical background for the sensual love story between Sarah and Will. Book-discussion groups will have a field day with the imagery, the well-developed characters, and the concepts of innocence, evil, and guilt.” — Booklist (starred review)
“In Perry’s excellent second novel… a fatal illness, a knife-wielding maniac, and a fated union with the Essex Serpent will dictate the ultimate happiness of [the] characters. Like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman... this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay.” — Publishers Weekly
“Compulsive...narrative and voice coil together until it is very difficult to stop reading.” — The Guardian
“Irresistible” — People (Book of the Week)
“Astonishing...Perry’s prose is rich, textured, and intricate...a thoughtful and elegant book about the human need for knowledge and love, and about the fears and desires we bury.” — Vox
“Triumphs on every level, whether in its rich, evocative prose or its authentic Victorian detail, its credible, multifaceted characters or its high-stakes drama...Perry likened writing her novel to a ‘possession.’ Reading it, we find ourselves under a similar mesmerizing spell.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Essex Serpent is Sarah Perry’s first book to come across the pond to us from Great Britain, and it is a corker...Even the most minor characters are filled with a particular life, light and love...one of the best, most memorable novels I have read in long years.” — Daily Herald
“As engrossing as its reputation would suggest...Perry’s command of language as a tool to evoke time and place proves remarkable.” — Paste Magazine
“Dickensian in scope, depth, and exquisite use of language … At once love story and mystery, deeply penetrating layered characters with wit and grace, The Essex Serpent reveals the mundane beast that spawned wild rumors, and the stranger, less easily unmasked beasts within us.” — Historical Novels Review
“Perry’s second novel is a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction.” — San Francisco Gate
“At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvellous 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…It is so good its pages seem lit from within.” — Helen Schulman, New York Times Book Review
“Everything they’re saying is true: sumptuous, beautiful, powerful, engrossing, brilliant.” — Nina Stibbe
“[T]he most deeply satisfying fiction you will read this year.” — Waterstones Book of the Year
“A blissful novel of unapologetic appetites, where desire and faith mingle on the marshes, but friendship is the miracle. Sarah Perry has the rare gift of committing the uncommittable to prose -- that is to say: here is a writer who understands life.” — Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist
“A big, warm, generous novel that wears its considerable wisdom lightly, The Essex Serpent is an absolute pleasure from start to finish—I truly didn’t want it to end.” — Melissa Harrison, author of At Hawthorn Time
“For originality, richness of prose and depth of characterization is unlikely to be bettered this year ... one of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade.” — Sunday Times
“Confident, intelligent and original storytelling -- I was seduced by the many charms of The Essex Serpent.” — Laline Paull, author of The Bees
“Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel, I wonder if it would have surpassed The Essex Serpent? Sarah Perry establishes herself as one of the finest fiction writers working in Britain today.” — John Burnside
“A suspenseful love story… The Essex Serpent recalls variously the earthiness of Emily Brontë, the arch, high-tensile tone of Conan Doyle, the evocation of time and place achieved by Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters and the antiquarian edgelands horror of M. R. James.” — New Statesman
“Perry’s achieved the near impossible…A thing of beauty inside and out… a stunning achievement.” — The Independent
“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
“An exquisitely absorbing, old-fashioned page-turner…The Essex Serpent is shot through with such a vivid, lively sense of the period that it reads like Charles Dickens at his most accessible and fans of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will also find much to love.” — Daily Express
“Perry fully inhabits many of the concerns and stylistic elements of the 19th century novel -- but its interests are still contemporary ones: desire, fulfillment and questioning the world… Her language is exquisite, her characterization finely tuned… [I]t’s clear that Perry is a gifted writer of immense ability.” — Irish Times
“A Victorian-era gothic with a Dickensian focus on societal ills, Perry’s second novel surprises in its wonderful freshness . . . [her] singular characters are drawn with a fondness that is both palpable and contagious, all making for pure pleasure.” — The Observer
“Sarah Perry’s novel of 19th century England tackles big ideas...reversals and sharp darts of psychological insight combined with a sense of the substance and feeling of late 19th-century ideas in bloom make this a fine novel, both historical and otherwise.” — Newsday
Custom House, 9780062666383, 464pp.
Publication Date: April 24, 2018
About the Author
Sarah Perry is the internationally bestselling author of The Essex Serpent and After Me Comes the Flood. She lives in England.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Many comparisons have been drawn between Sarah Perry’s writing and the Victorian novelists who were writing at the time the book was set, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Do you think this book feels Victorian, or contemporary?
2. “I’ll fill your wounds with gold”, Michael says. He means both literally that he will make sure Cora is financially comfortable during their marriage in exchange for the pleasure of hurting her, but also that he will remake her as something more beautiful and interesting than she was before. Cora survived her horrible marriage, but was definitely damaged by it. What do you think the seams of gold are in Cora’s character?
3. Many of the characters have unequal relationships: Cora and Martha, Spencer and Will. Do you think that viewing someone as a means to an end necessarily precludes loving them?
4. Cora’s son, Francis, might today be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Despite his challenges, he gets a lot of pleasure from learning about the natural world. Eccentricity seems to have been more acceptable in the Victorian era, at least for men of a certain class. Do you think Francis would be happier in his time or in our own?
5. Will is at odds with the superstitious villagers, who insist the serpent is real, whereas he sees their conviction as a sign of their lack of faith. However, he is also wrangling with Cora, who is more interested in science than religious belief. And while Will is a minister of the established Church, he secretly reads Darwin. Do you think he believes faith is fundamentally rooted in the words of the Bible or a more personal encounter with the world?
6. When Francis asks Will what sin is, he describes it as falling short. When Will and Cora finally have their encounter in the woods, Will’s wife is still alive. How do you think Will would judge this incident by his own definition of sin?
7. Cora’s physical size and mannish habits of dress are frequently commented upon by other characters in the novel. She rejects a lot of society’s expectations of her as a woman, whereas Stella Ransome is the living embodiment of the perfect housewife. Despite their differences, they are friends. What do you think Perry is trying to tell us by having Cora save her rival instead of quietly letting her drown?
8. Cora sends her angry letter to Luke at a terrible time – it arrives as all his other hopes are being dashed. If this unfortunate coincidence hadn’t taken place, would we still read the letter as cruel? Should she have expressed her thoughts more kindly or was she right to be angry?
9. One of the subplots of the novel is the disappearance of Naomi Banks. She and Joanna Ransome argued and Naomi ran away. By the end of the novel, she has returned and Joanna is trying to cope with the imminent death of her mother. Do you think they will become close friends again, for good, or are the differences between them simply too great?
10. The novel sets up Cora to choose between two men and in the end she chooses neither. Do you think this is a comment on traditional literary plots? Do you think the novel sees friendship as more valuable and enduring than romantic love?