Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.

By: Jen Shoop

Four stars. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent follows the stories of an intelligent and curious wealthy widow, a pious country vicar, and a mythical serpent in a fictionalized but hyper-realistic 19th century setting. It was an interesting companion to last month’s pick in that both grapple with narrative conventions in interesting ways. My sister described Cusk’s narrator as “the anti-narrator,” and this book was in some ways an “anti-novel”: the conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions were artfully blurry and non-distinct. One of the book’s central conflicts, for example, is the age-old friction between science and religion, one that the reader understands nearly immediately will not be resolved simply in this book (or in real life for that matter) — it is an interrogation that extends well beyond the confines of this book and Perry seems content fueling its ongoing burn here, with no intention for easy resolution. Other conflicts of character take on a similar, more philosophical, tenor: at the book’s conclusion, we are left wondering: what actually changed here? Who is happy and who is not? No one has ended up in a traditional, committed relationship despite the fact that there are several romantic entanglements, an imminent death remains at bay at the book’s close, and multiple romantic triangles remain unresolved and curiously non-fractious. In this way, the book is deeply and presumably intentionally unsatisfying. It does not give the reader what she wants. We open on a messy scene and we end on a messy scene, and the question is — why?

In some ways, I read these contrarian literary moves as feminist: Perry does not want us to fall prey to the borderline misogynist (or at least reductive) trope of women hating women as they vie over the same man. And she seems to be suggesting that satisfying, long-term relationships can take shape outside of the conventional institutions of marriage and even monogamy. Further, she seems to imply, some relationships are at their best as purely or largely intellectual endeavors. This is the undoing of the traditional marriage plot. Writ large, Perry seems to be hinting at a modern kind of love. No rules, just right. (Ha.)

The novel’s other remarkable achievement is its precise conjuring of a historical time period. Were it not for the “anti-novel” conventions which imply its modernity, this book could have been published in the 1800s. It is steeped in historical detail with nary a cap tip to the present day — and what historical detail it has! It is rich with minutiae, especially of the flora and fauna variety. It reminded me in this sense of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which I know many of you loved.

And yet for all of its achievements, I found the novel shallow. I discussed the book with a group of girlfriends and we ran out of steam after a couple of points were made. This is at uncomfortable odds with my current read, JP Delaney’s The Perfect Wife, which reads like a chick lit thriller (i.e., fast and without much artistry in the way of words) but has left me pondering many of its provocations at length — the novel is about a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has just lost his wife and decides to recreate her through A.I. It asks all kinds of questions about technology, morality, life and death, immortality, ethics, art v. science, self-engineering, self-creation, self-definition. A lot to chew on.

Has anyone else read either book? Would you share your thoughts?

Post Scripts.

+Next on my reading list: Say Nothing, a non-fiction account of “murder and memory” in North Ireland; Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (getting crazy good reviews — about an African American woman who is accused of kidnapping a white toddler for whom she nannies while in a grocery one evening, and a lot of the racial tensions and complexities of transactional relationships more generally); and Ghosted for my next brain candy thriller read.

+I have also heard Jessica Simpson’s Open Book is a delight on audiobook (she narrates). I am thinking of downloading this and listening to it while walking Tilly/on the Subway though I’ve never done an audiobook before (!)

+There are many ways to read.

+Ordered this for summer. I’ve been eyeing it forever and I just had to jump before it sold out. I was debating between the dragonfly and this floral stunner by the same brand for a long time, but the dragonflies spoke to me. (I’m also a little worried about buying maxis with tiered hems like that because I’m so damn short and know I’ll have to have it hemmed and hence ruin the effect without a huge seamstress cost.)

+My favorite books ever.

+Picnic chic.

+How sweet is this eyelet trim onesie for an itty bitty girl? (And this for mama.)

+Always on my desk: these personalized notepads and a Julep cup filled with my favorite pens in every color.

+Dead over these earrings.

+In love with my new rainboots (on sale!) — I got them in that pretty matte pink in preparation for spring showers.

+Stocked up on these tees — on sale and in such good colors right now.

+Literary life raft.

+On being high-brow vs. low-brow.

+How sweet are these whale jammies?!

+Lemon shirtdress! So fun.

+This midi dress is absolutely stunning, especially in the white!

+Tilly’s new collar: this in the blue gingham!

+Check out more book reviews here.

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7 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.

  1. Oh, I’m adding The Perfect Wife to my list … it sounds so thought-provoking! I don’t usually go for thrillers (in book form, at least) but this sounds intriguing.

    I’ve read Such a Fun Age and it was definitely a worthy read, if definitely lighter … curious to hear your thoughts!

    I’m currently reading Severance by Ling Ma and while it’s a bit uncomfortably on-the-nose due to the current coronavirus predicament, I’m really enjoying it.

    LOVING your dragonfly mini! It’s so cute, and I relate to the challenges of buying maxi-length dresses … even at 5’4, many of them are too long! Even some “midis” are too long!

    I have the Everlane rain boots in a similar matte pink colorway and I LOVE them for spring!


    1. Keep me posted on what you think about the Ling Ma! And curious what you mean about Such a Fun Age being “lighter” — it sounds like it grapples with some intense stuff! Fill me in…would you recommend?


    2. Ha — that was probably not the right word to use (re: ‘lighter’). The themes of the book are not light in any sense — it grapples with race and class in a very direct, face-forward way. I guess what I meant is that I wouldn’t call it literary, and (to me) it toes the line between fluff and substance. Does that make more sense? V. curious to know your thoughts once you read it! xx

      1. Oh, interesting! Thanks for the heads up. I did notice it was on Reese’s book club list which sometimes makes me leery…she usually picks very juicy, entertaining, easy-to-read books, but the artistry is not always there…Thanks!

    3. Yes, exactly — it’s absolutely in that easy-to-read, juicy lane. Still entertaining and I think the subject matter gives it more heft in terms of dialogue for a book club. 🙂 xx

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