The Essex Serpent

A Novel
Narrated by: Juanita McMahon
Length: 14 hrs and 44 mins
Categories: Fiction, Literary
4 out of 5 stars (783 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Costa Book Award Finalist and the Waterstones (UK) Book of the Year 2016

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late 19th-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 19, 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 11-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).

©2016 Sarah Perry (P)2017 WF Howes

Critic Reviews

"I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvelous 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 - and it contains some of the most beautiful evocations of place and landscape I've ever read. It is so good its pages seem lit from within. As soon as I'd finished it I started reading it again." (Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk)
"An array of adjectives comes to mind at the opening words of this audiobook: alluring, poetic, with an air of exactness and aged wisdom.... Narrator Juanita McMahon expertly inhabits its sharp-tongued, sweet-spirited, stoic, wondrous characters. Her vocal characterizations are gothically charming.... A superb narration!" ( AudioFile)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

A Kind of 'Year in the Life of..' story.

This story is very character driven. Its mostly about what our characters were thinking about and what they were motivated by. And I will say that they are extremely interesting and likeable. Actually, our heroine wasn't my favorite character if I'm honest. The Essex Serpent is there through most of the book though!

I've read some comments about the narrator. Myself, I think she's a very talented narrator and enjoyed the listen very much. I did have to bump up the speed a bit. I think 'they' slow down the playback sometimes for some reason; excellent voices for all different characters. I will make the observation that perhaps one shouldn't go from a whisper to an actual shout unless doing a live reading. I believe a simulated shout is sufficient for audiobooks.

I enjoyed the book very much.

15 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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There's so much to unpack -- it's terrific

Wow! This is a terrific book, but very dense and full of lushly written descriptions, which might not be everyone's style. I've tried three times to write a decent summary in a few sentences, but I can't. There's really so much to unpack from a story that takes place during 10 or 11 months in late 19th Century England. The character of love and friendship, the differences of reason and faith (“We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light"), the limits and restrictions on women, the growth of science and medicine, and the Essex Serpent as a symbol of myth, medicine, temptation, sex, or a punishment for sinfulness. I also loved the characters, especially the women who were all great in their own ways. Cora is a woman after my own heart, with love to share and endless curiosity and wonder; looking to create her own path and find her own happiness:
"Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh, I don’t mean without morals or conscience—I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that…"

13 people found this helpful

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A delicious read!

Engaging plot, sumptuous language and intriguing characters. Perry created a unique atmosphere that I was reluctant to leave at story's end. I'll be listening to more of her work, hopefully narrated by McMahon. My favorite listen so far this year...

4 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Just people acting like people.

The author's summary is misleading if not outright false.

It's like the author tried to bake a cake, but used few ingredients and in the wrong order and amounts.

Perry takes some people, adds them to a place. She Throws in a dash dialogue, sprinkles on some backstory and voila! Absolutely nothing changes in the end.

The author does seem to enjoy taking gender stereotypes as far as she can. The majority of the female characters all have extreme personalities that are intensified impossibly in one single direction or another, lacking depth. The majority of the male characters are all calmly neutral and blind, except when a female character crashes into them.

One thing that impressed me was how characters regularly have to 'break character' and do something random to move the story along, but then are forced to ignore thier present storyline so that they stay true to their personalities. Each one is a walking contradiction. Everyone was akward and unnatural. There's 1 minute of detailed erotic romance shoved in near the end.

And so this book isn't good or bad, it just is. There is no plot and no point. The correct genre for this book could be 'slice of life', but it's a very stale slice.

The narrator did okay. For some reason some characters were given broken english to identify them.

3 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Gorgeous

This is a beautifully told story. The narrator is exceptional. I think I would have loved the book if I had read it, rather than listened to it, but not as much.

7 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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My new favorite book!

Strong, smart, funny, flawed, REAL female characters, who are the recipients of attention and love, and set their own boundaries and rules ... glorious poetic language ... science, religion, truth, love, and all the complexities of life. What more could one ask for?

3 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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A Tender Tale Told Well

Found this recommended in The Week and it didn't disappoint. Unlike one reviewer, I found the narrator had a wonderful ability with the accents and vocal idiosyncrasies of the various characters. Her "neutral" voice was lovely as well. Beyond the interesting players, the author also created a fascinating world with lush but not overblown descriptions of Essex life and surroundings. I was totally enchanted.

6 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Myth becomes reality

This languid books unfolds during a summer of revelations. It starts with a search for the Essex Serpent, a snakelike being that bobs along the surface of the lake. Some people think it's real. Others think it's a fraud. By the end of the book, reality and myth upturns the lives of both those who believed, and those who didn't.

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Narrator criticism UNFOUNDED!!

Complex story with psychologically complicated characters. I felt the narrator was exceptional in capturing each one. The naysayers should perhaps have paid more attention to the story being narrated before offering such unjust criticism.

7 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Interesting characterization,

Well written and well plotted. A story existing in a time of primarily whiny books about bad marriages, bad boy friends and bad dating.

The female protagonist would probably be diagnosed as a border line Narcissist, in today's tendency to label everyone, whether they deserve it or not, but she is very interesting, even if flawed. Wanting a world of the mind, she still is unable to resist using the men who love her and she doesn't love back.

A wonderful story about cultural upbringing and beliefs based on fuzzy thinking and fact less explanations. An adventure story about a dragon from the sea, or maybe not.

1 person found this helpful