Blog Tour: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: A Book Review

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
• Hardcover: 432 pages
• Publisher: Custom House (June 6, 2017)
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Source: This book was given to me by TLC book tours in Exchange for an honest review.
 Synopsis: Costa Book Award Finalist, Waterstones Book of the Year, winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year and overall Book of the Year.

     “[T]he most deeply satisfying fiction you will read this year.”

–Waterstones Book of the Year

     An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

     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 not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.

     While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.

     These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

     Hailed by Sarah Waters as “a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author,” The Essex Serpent is “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, London).

     My Review: After the death of her husband. Cora moves from London to the coastal town of Essex. It is there that she finds her first taste of freedom and to rebuild her life. Once she has arrived there, she learns the tale that the mythical Essex Serpent has taken the life of a young man. Intrigued, she decides to investigate the truth herself. She is joined by the preacher William Ransome, who disregards the rumors and believes that these tales may threaten the community’s faith in God. Together, they set out to find the serpent and eventually fall in love with each other.

  Cora had so much potential, but there was hardly much emotional development to her story. She has a tragic backstory, but it didn’t really shape her character. She has moved to the country from London in the hope of trying to rebuild her life after an unhappy marriage. However, once she arrives, she basks in the attention of others and enjoys it. She has a love of science and does not really believe in God. There were a few choices that she made that I didn’t particularly care for. Throughout the story, I never really quite understood Cora. She is mostly distant. She is described as an unconventional woman, but I didn't grasp it. She behaved like most of the other women. The only difference was she had a love of science. There was nothing really special about her. Therefore, Cora was never truly explored. With a woman who has a sad past, an enthusiasm in science, and an inquisitive mind, she could have been one of the reader’s favorite characters of all time. Instead, she was mostly a passive character in her own story.

  As for Will himself, he also had potential to be a great character. He was the opposite of Cora. He had a solid faith in God, and thought that the serpent could threaten his community's faith. He was afraid of science and how it reflected religion. However, I found him to be a very unlikable character. I didn't like his actions, and I especially hated how he treated his wife. Thus, I didn’t like the relationship between Will and Cora. They did not have the epic forbidden romance that this book promised, and I was not rooting for them as a couple.

  Overall, this book is about beliefs, love, and reason. The characters were never fully developed. There were a few sidelines that went nowhere. The premise of the story seemed very promising, but we were never really given what the description on the back cover assured us. The flowery writing did not appeal to me, and there was an omnipresent third person point of view that distracted me from the overall plot. I did find the setting to be very atmospheric. Thus, I would have liked the story better if it wasn’t very drawn out. I would have also loved it if the novel did not focus too much on the love triangle and bog us down with tedious and repetitious argument of science vs religion. However, while I did not enjoy this book as much as I should have, The Essex Serpent will appeal to fans of At Water’s Edge, Named of the Dragon, and The Forbidden Garden.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Purchase Links

About Sarah Perry

Photo by Jamie Drew

    Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted forThe Essex Serpent is her American debut.
the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich.

    Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as part of the tour.


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