Review: Ducks, Newburyport

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.)

ducks,newburyportIn 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

 

27 thoughts on “Review: Ducks, Newburyport”

    1. Thanks so much! It did take a bit of time, but definitely paid off in the end for me! I really hope to see it again at WP time, in hopes that more people will be picking it up and talking about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is the best review of this book I’ve read yet. It seems like reactions to it have been mixed but I was so curious about and intrigued by the concept. I like stream of consciousness stories if they’re done well and it sounds like this one was. I got such a great sense of this one from your review. Thanks for writing about it so thoroughly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I know it got a bit long and I was worried I put too much into it to hold anyone’s interest, so it means a lot to see it appreciated! 🙂 It was curiosity for the concept that drew my attention initially as well, so I was thrilled to feel so engaged and interested in the story once I got going. Of course, no thousand-page-stream-of-consciousness book is going to be for everyone, but I really think there’s a lot to appreciate here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t worry reviews are too long all the time, ha! Actually I really like reading longer reviews, that’s how I get a better sense of whether something actually is for me or not, and it always gives me points to consider when I’m actually reading the book or to turn over afterwards. I love that, and this one was great, your analysis of it is so interesting 🙂

        And the mixed reviews I’d read of it were a little confusing, it was clear people who didn’t like it didn’t enjoy the style but there seemed to be so much substance there too even if the stream-of-consciousness thing isn’t for you. It just sounds so well done, I like that you get to know her and her quirks better and that it seems to connect everything. Thanks for such an insightful look at it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, thanks! I usually appreciate longer reviews as well, though I know in this Twitter era there’s definitely a benefit to succinctness as well.

        I can definitely see how disliking the style could make putting up with a thousand pages of it rather tough. But I think even those readers who don’t jive with the long main sentence would have a hard time arguing that there’s no merit here, as it’s certainly a very accomplished book. The structure, the concept, and all of the little touches seem to fit just right.
        I’m so glad to hear my review was helpful!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am impressed by how in-depth your review is while, at the same times, not making me feel like I know too much about the book to be intrigued anymore – I am more intrigued now. Hopefully I’ll get it for Christmas (it’s on my wishlist!! Crossing fingers) and read it during winter break. Then I’ll come back to your review because damn, it’ll be good to have someone to talk to about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I’m relieved to hear that I found the right balance for explaining the book without giving too much away, and I’m already looking forward to seeing your thoughts and chatting about this one! (Fingers crossed for you!!)

      Like

  3. Incredible review!
    I am still team “no book needs to be 1000 pages long” but I will read this eventually. I am hoping for an audiobook at some point because I think the narrative style would work better for me in that format.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂
      It’s definitely a long one, and disappointing that that didn’t really feel necessary, but I found it worth the time in the end. I hope you will too! I really struggle with audio personally, but I can see how that might work very well with this style (and maybe entice more readers, as well), so I think that would be an excellent next step for this book. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Captain! The style and length are definitely a Big Commitment and won’t win everyone over, but Ellmann really does some impressive things with them. Glad I caught your interest with this review!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure that your review sells me on this book simply because I’ve been reading some very chonky novels lately, and I’m getting a bit exhausted with putting so much emotion and time into one work. An interesting connection is that I was one of those weirdos who loved to go out on dates, as in just a date and not “we’re dating” in the way middle schoolers mean. I would go out on dates with different people in the same week. Perhaps my reading is similar. Ha. Okay, I’ve rambled. I do love the meditation on violence, safety, and baking, though. That definitely has me intrigued and wanting to eat apple pie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that’s fair, I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince everyone, and I can relate to a bit of long-book-fatigue! (And honestly, I wonder if dating preferences might show more about our reading preferences than we might expect… both are commitments of time and emotion with someone you can’t really know before the experience!)
      But yes, this one really does cover some fascinating topics, and put the reader in the mood to devour some baked goods!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful review! I was so scared off this one at first but the more I hear about it the more I’m convinced that I’m actually going to love it. I’ll definitely be picking it up in the next couple of months!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Ah, I’m so glad you’re planning to read this one, it’s absolutely exceptional. It is definitely a motherhood book, but there’s so much more to it as well that I really hope you’ll enjoy the read! I’ll look forward to your review. 🙂

      Like

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah! 🙂 I’m glad I could convince you, and I hope you’ll have as good a time with this one as I did!
      Personally I’m glad to have my own copy of this one mainly because it made me feel like I could take my time with it, but also I tabbed a ton of quotes that I’ll enjoy looking back on, and I know I want to reread eventually. So it worked out for me, but if you’re on the fence I think if you tried a library copy or even like an ebook sample you’d know pretty quickly if you’re going to get along with the style or not!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a great review! I think you’ve convinced me that I want to read this though maybe I’ll wait until next year. I like what you say about the size and length of the book making a statement about the importance of women’s thoughts, including the so-called average stay-at-home mom. And I’m reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series with my kids right now so I’m all caught up there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I’m so glad I was perhaps able to sway you, I’d love to see your thoughts on this one! I think Ellmann finds a great balance here between making this woman’s thoughts feel mundane and relatable, and showing that there’s still plenty of value to be found both in this character and in everyday experiences in general. It’s very well written. And you’re definitely going to be starting on the right foot with some Laura Ingalls Wilder knowledge! I loved that series as a kid and was happy to see it here. So glad your family is enjoying it as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a great classic series and very fun to read it again with my own kids. We are definitely editing some of it as we read aloud though, especially the way they talk about Indigenous people! But there’s lots of good stuff too.

        I’m actually excited to read Ducks now! I think I might try to kick off 2020 with it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I didn’t notice all of those offensive bits when I read the series the first time as a kid, but in retrospect I can see that they were there, and I feel that I would do the same, editing it while reading to youngsters nowadays. The Ducks narrator does comment on some of that offensive content!

        I really hope you’ll enjoy Ducks when you get to it! Tackling a book this long would be a great way to start the year, imo!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s