I love the quote at the beginning of this book from Michel de Montaigne:
If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.
It sums up the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed woman from London, and William Ransome, a parson in the small coastal village of Aldwinter, perfectly.
That’s what The Essex Serpent is ultimately about – the relationships between the different characters, the paths they take as well as the ones they get swept along for the ride, despite all their intentions. There’s a lot going on in the book, and I wouldn’t categorise it as a romance at all, but love and friendship are major themes, against the backdrop of a town paralysed by fear of the so-called Essex Serpent.
I have to say that, once I got through the first third of this book, I really enjoyed it. Not that there was anything wrong with the beginning – I just felt it got into its stride a bit more after that. Sarah Perry’s real talent clearly lies in developing beautiful, complicated relationships between the characters, and it just makes the book feel so real. It gives it some depth.
The thing that really struck me about the book was its portrayal of women. There’s usually one main female character in a book that irritates me because her entire story revolves around a man. None of the female characters in The Essex Serpent are mere plot devices – even Stella, the beautiful wife of the parson, has layers and intricacies that are ultimately unravelled.
The imagery captures the Victorian feel of the book well – it doesn’t try to be a Dickensian novel, and there’s no bizarre, olde-worlde language, but it conveys the feeling of days gone by effectively.
All in all, I’d recommend this book. Don’t go into it expecting much mystery, the Essex Serpent very much feels like a backdrop to the story – but do expect great storytelling and characters that tug on the heartstrings.