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The Essex Serpent - October CC Book Club Selection

Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
Our October CC Book Club selection is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This acclaimed historical novel, set in 19th century England, is the story of a young widow who travels to coastal Essex and gets caught up in the search for a mythical sea serpent that has both enthralled and terrified the local residents. Perry's novel was selected as the 2017 British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year, the Waterstones Book of the Year, and a 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
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

Discussion begins October 1st. Please join us!
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Replies to: The Essex Serpent - October CC Book Club Selection

  • katliamomkatliamom Registered User Posts: 11,108 Senior Member
    I just finished this novel: good choice!
  • ignatiusignatius Registered User Posts: 3,089 Senior Member
    I'm looking forward to the book and discussion.
  • ignatiusignatius Registered User Posts: 3,089 Senior Member
    My goal is to start reading today. I have the book; all I need is to find some time to settle in with it. Looking forward to the discussion.
  • silverladysilverlady Registered User Posts: 539 Member
    Today is the day!!! I am very interested in seeing what everyone has to say about this book.
  • Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
    It's October 1st! I hope all is well with everyone, especially those who might recently have been in the path of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires. It's been a frightening couple of months in that regard.

    Welcome to our discussion of The Essex Serpent.

    More than a mystery about a sea serpent, this book, to me, was about the mysteries of the human heart -- why we love those whom we love, and the nature of desire.

    Despite the various couples in the novel, the story is not really about romantic love, which (at least in Cora and Will's case) is viewed almost as an unwelcome by-product of a close relationship. In fact, there are so many distinctly different types of love described in the novel that I looked up the four categories as defined by the ancient Greeks: Eros, Phileo, Storge, and Agape: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_words_for_love

    I think we could easily find examples of all four among the interesting cast of characters.

    And though it's not an official category, I would have to throw "Unrequited" in there for poor Spencer's sake.

    Did you enjoy the novel? I did. Although there was no character that I fully embraced, each one had his or her moments of beauty.
  • Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
    Discussion Questions

    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 Luke. 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?
    (Questions issued by the publisher.)
    http://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/13-fiction/11007-essex-serpent-perry?start=3
  • psychmompsychmom Registered User Posts: 1,777 Senior Member
    Hoping to finish the book today. I had a hard time getting into it, but started to get more intrigued at the halfway point. I think it’s because I really didn’t “love” any of the main characters, but I guess that’s the point, that we’re a complex mix of things.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,484 Senior Member
    I'm all about characters. I found something to like in everyone we spent any time with. I liked their complexity, their ability to grow and change, the fact that no one was good or evil. It felt Victorian enough to me - though I suspect there were some things that were anachronisms, the only thing that bothered me was the style of some of the letters. It's been a long time since I read a Victorian novel with the exception of Far from the Madding Crowd. I haven't read any actual collections of letters from that time period so I could easily be wrong about their breeziness. I know letters were much more like IMs then. Postal delivery was twice a day, and England is just not that big, so those messages got to each other relatively quickly. And like IM's, there is room for misunderstandings when things are misread. (Jumping ahead to Question 8, I think Luke totally overreacted to Cora's letter.)
  • Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
    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?

    To @mathmom’s point, I think the book feels very contemporary. I looked not once but twice to be sure I wasn’t wrong about the year in which it was set. I think Sarah Perry must have anticipated some pushback on this, because she addresses it right away in the Author’s Note at the end of the book:
    I am indebted to a number of books for having opened the door to a Victorian age so like our own I am almost persuaded I remember it.

    Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2002) challenges notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and incomprehensible manners; rather, he shows us a nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites, and a fascination for the strange.

    ****

    Those in the habit of picturing the Victorian woman as forever succumbing to fits of the vapors under the gaze of a bewhiskered husband can do no better than to read Rachel Holme’s biography of Eleanor Marx (2013). In its preface the author says: “Feminism began in the 1870s, not the 1970s.“

    I’ve read a fair amount of Victorian fiction and I’ll agree with the feminism part. As I think I’ve said before, I love North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (a contemporary of Dickens) and her heroine Margaret Hale is no wilting violet, that’s for sure. There are a few letters in North and South and there is definitely a “breezy” element to the ones Margaret receives from her cousin Edith (“affectionate and inconsequent like the writer”). But those letters are between female relations. In The Essex Serpent, I was surprised that Cora felt so free to express herself openly in letters to men (but good for her, of course). I agree with @mathmom about Cora’s letter to Luke. It sounded just like her—was he really expecting a different response from the woman he knew and loved so well?
  • ignatiusignatius Registered User Posts: 3,089 Senior Member
    Another here who thinks Luke overreacted to Cora's letter ... but then steps back and thinks "Well, that's Luke." Let's just say that he lacks insight when it comes to reading people (and obviously letters).

    Interestingly, while aware that Cora occupies the main character slot, for me she isn't. Secondary characters kept my interest and blurred Cora's import. I don't know whether that's a good thing or bad but Martha, Francis, Luke, Spencer and so on - I felt more clearly defined and of interest.
  • psychmompsychmom Registered User Posts: 1,777 Senior Member
    edited October 1
    Agree with ignatius that it was hard to find Cora’s voice - I guess that is the point, that she needed to find her path to freedom in her way. The supporting characters were more markedly dramatic, even autistic Francis. (Btw, I kind of loved how he turned Crackwell’s attention to the night sky as he was dying.)
  • Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
    I could never really warm up to Cora. She seemed self-centered — although even as I write that, it doesn’t seem fair to say it. I suppose a woman had to be somewhat self-centered in order to gain any real independence in that era, yet I think Martha managed to do it while still demonstrating an astute way of seeing and understanding other people.

    I liked Will. His struggle was oh so very Reverend Dimmesdale. :) I couldn’t help but think of Dimmesdale and Hester during the scene when Will and Cora walk in the woods. There is even an echo of The Scarlet Letter in the peculiarities shared by Francis and Pearl. In Hawthorne’s tale, Pearl’s strange behavior is supposed to represent the “wrongness” of the union between Dimmesdale and Hester. I wonder if in a similar way, Francis’ unusual personality in some way represents the skewed relationship between Cora and her abusive husband.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,484 Senior Member
    I agree that Cora was in many ways the least likable and hardest to pin down. I do think that's because she'd spent so long trying to be invisible to her husband that she's really figuring out who she is - sort of a delayed adolescence with all the annoying attributes of your average teenager. But I still liked her spunk and her unwillingness to conform to society's expectations for her. I hope she and Luke can find their way back to being friends, and perhaps something more.

    I have to say that while I read The Scarlet Letter - as a grown up! - I never the less remember nothing.

    I loved Francis. Maybe partly because I have a kid, who while not autistic as far as I know, is clearly nevertheless on the spectrum.
  • PlantMomPlantMom Registered User Posts: 1,572 Senior Member
    I'm about halfway through, so I'm not reading through the comments, yet! So far this novel feels very fresh and contemporary in its scope. I just love the range of issues broached, so far. I'm slowly warming to Cora, although initially I thought I'd dislike her because of the way she brushed off her son's care. I've been busy reading today--fascinated by the mirage on the horizon, the sides taken with science vs. religion, and the developing and easy friendships.
  • Mary13Mary13 Registered User Posts: 3,496 Senior Member
    edited October 1
    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?

    The freedom Francis has in the late 19th century to come and go as he pleases in relative safety is a gift he could never really have in the modern age. In that way, I suppose he would be happier in his own time. Yet as he ages, what do you think is in store for him in the Victorian world? How will he be viewed by others?

    Autism was just beginning to be identified in England the late 1880s, according to this article. The history is interesting (although the terminology used at the time was offensive--no surprise there): https://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2005/05/18/autism-is-older-than-mercury/

    Re PlantMom's observation, I don't think Cora brushed off care of Francis because of a lack of love or desire to shirk her responsibility. Rather, I think she just didn't have the tools to deal with such a unique child. And she was still so young herself when he was born.
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