Last night I stayed up late to proofread an essay my son wrote for his sophomore English class. The topic was love, to define it in his own words and then spin off from there. The night before last, I stayed up late finishing The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. As I was reading my son’s sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and sometimes bewildering thoughts on love, my thoughts on the novel became a lot clearer. It’s a novel about love, pure, simple, and complex.
Set at the end of the nineteenth century, the novel tells the story of the many relationships of Cora Seabourne. Cora is married at the opening of the novel, to a wealthy man who, by all accounts, is cruel and cold to her. Certainly, he does not love her in any way we understand that term, but this is all Cora has ever known to expect. She has a son, Francis, who would likely be considered autistic in our current world, so she doesn’t feel much reciprocated love from her child. Only her son’s governess and her friend/companion, Martha, shows her affection. There is more than a hint that their love has romantic overtones.
Not long into the novel, Cora’s husband dies. She’s left a very wealthy woman, and an odd one for her time — fascinated by collecting fossils and not much caring about her appearance. On the advice of some friends, Cora, Martha, and Francis leave London to visit the more rural Essex. There she indulges in hiking around in old clothes through the mud looking for fossils while Martha cares for Francis. In the hamlet of Aldwinter, she meets the local vicar, Will, and his wife Stella, and their two children. Aldwinter is in the midst of a fright over reports that a huge mysterious serpent has been glimpsed, elusively, in the estuary. Like the Loch Ness monster, this serpent is said to have appeared in the Blackwater estuary in times past, and the villagers blame any unexplained or nefarious events on its reappearance. Will is dismissive of such superstitions, but Cora is fascinated by the possibility of finding a “living fossil.”
The love themes in the book are often triangular and serpentine. There is a triangle between the villagers antiquated superstitiousness at the old and new tales of the serpent, Will’s modern practical faith (he tries to hack off an old carving of the serpent from a pew), and Cora’s scientific curiosity in ichthyosaurs. There is a love triangle between Stella (her serpent is tubercular), Cora, and Will. There is a triangle between Cora, Will, and Luke, the doctor with a caduceus on his belt buckle, and several others triangles, too.
What I especially liked about the love ties in this book is their complexity, their unexpected turns and transformations. Will and Cora’s relationship is a refreshing push-pull between platonic and romantic love. The exact nature of Martha and Cora’s relationship is unclear, likely even to themselves. Luke suffers personally and professionally only to realize a love deeper and more complementary to his character by the end. Francis finds an unlikely soulmate that he is able to express his love to and in his own way. And Cora, the centerpiece, must work her way through feeling unlovable (love herself, perhaps), even though there is much evidence to the contrary. Each connection is a layered exploration of the possible expression of the emotion, wending their way serpent-like through the novel, but none of the explorations are trite or overblown. This was quite a good book and very well written — highly recommend.