Review: The Essex Serpent

2.5 out of 5 stars

Not even picturing Tom Hiddleston as the male lead could save this story. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Upon learning that Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston were making an AppleTV+ adaption of The Essex Serpent, I convinced my book club friends to make it our next choice.

Then I finished the book and called them off.

The Essex Serpent isn’t bad. in fact, it’s quite lovely in its way. But I wanted either bodice-ripping Victorian romance (he’s a vicar for heaven’s sake) and/or a mythical sea beast emerging from the foggy English seaside. Preferably both. But The Essex Serpent has neither.

Cora Seaborn is an upper class British widow, whose abusive husband had the good grace to die and leave her the means to be her odd, assertive, tomboy-ish self. She’s a self-made scientist and naturalist, quite an oddity for a woman. A friend directs Cora’s aimless curiosity toward the family of a friend, country vicar Will Ransome. Who just so happens to be attempting to quell the rising superstitious hysteria of his parishioner that a legendary, murderous sea serpent has returned to stalk their waters.

The story is not about the monster (or hunt for one). Itself rather aimless, the story is about the well drawn, but hardly captivating, characters. Cora’s unusual friendship with Will, his dying wife, and their children is interesting, her son is autistic, her doctor is an obsessive, her handmaid is an activist for the poor. But all of their interactions and stories are mostly devoid of conflict. In fact, the whole book is that way. Even when important things happen, they are curiously lacking drama. It’s almost as if the scientific nature of Cora’s character pervades the book, removing the reader to a place of mere observation, of total objectivity. It strips the feeling, the urgency, from what should have been a rich plot, and left me feeling very underwhelmed.

Has anyone watched The Essex Serpent series? As written, I can see Claire Danes playing Cora well – single-minded, primly repressed. Tom Hiddleston would likely bring to Will Ransome what the author could not: some much needed pizzazz. But after a 2.5 star book, it would take a lot of convincing for me to tune in.

[Somewhat Spoiler-y] Of particular frustration, there’s a sequence in which a man with whom Cora has been friendly reveals his romantic interest in her. She declines it. What ensues is a scandal in which her closest friends basically tell her she’s a no-good-trollope gutter wench for misleading the man. How dare she be of any use or interest to any man and not return the favor with groveling gratitude? THIS is the story I want to see: Cora’s backbone, her sense of self in an era where no such thing was allowed. Instead, she kowtows a bit, failing completely to grasp the wrong being done to her and instead, wondering what wrong she has done. A wasted opportunity to tell a story far more compelling that anything that actually happens in The Essex Serpent.

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