Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)
In the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.
“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”
The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.
Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.
The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.
“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”
Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.
So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.
“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”
The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.
“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”
And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.
Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.
Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.
“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”
In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.
Are you considering reading Ducks?
The Literary Elephant