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Stern Men Paperback – Bargain Price, June 8, 2001


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John Irving wishes. That he could be as mordantly funny as Elizabeth Gilbert, that is. With the publication of her first novel, Stern Men, Gilbert has been widely compared to New England's unofficial novelist laureate. And the comparison is a natural; this writer gives us a tough, lovable heroine against an iconoclastic, rural backdrop. Ruth Thomas grows up on Fort Niles Island, off the coast of Maine, among lobstermen, lobster boats, and, well, lobsters. There's just not much out there besides ocean. Abandoned by her mother, she lives sometimes with her dad and sometimes with her beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Pommeroy, and the seven idiot Pommeroy boys. Eventually she is plucked from obscurity by the wealthy Ellises--vacationers on Fort Niles for some hundred years--and sent, against her will, to a fancy boarding school in Delaware. (Sorting out her relationship with this highly manipulative family is one of the novel's crooked joys.) Now she has returned, and is casting about for something to do.

What Ruth does (hang around with her eccentric island friends, fall in love, organize the lobstermen) makes for an engaging book that's all the more charming for its rather lumpy, slow-paced plotting. Gilbert delivers a kind of delicious ethnography of lobster-fishing culture, if such a thing is possible, as well as a love story and a bildungsroman. But best of all, she possesses an ear for the ridiculous ways people communicate. One of Mrs. Pommeroy's young sons, "in addition to having the local habit of not pronouncing r at the end of a word--could not say any word that started with r.... What's more, for a long time everyone on Fort Niles Island imitated him. Over the whole spread of the island, you could hear the great strong fishermen complaining that they had to mend their wopes or fix their wigging or buy a new short-wave wadio."

The beauty of Gilbert's book is that she gives us an isolated rural culture, and refuses to settle for finding humor in its backwardness. Instead she gives us a community of uneducated but razor-sharp wits, and produces an impressive comic debut. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Set on two fictitious islands in northern Maine during the 1970s, this first novel by the author of a sparkling story collection, Pilgrims, begins slowly but warms up with smart, sassy humor. Isolated from the mainland by 20 miles of sea, but separated from each other only by a small channel, the islands of Fort Niles and Courne Haven should be natural allies, sharing the local lobster industry. Instead, the two communities are old enemies, torn apart by centuries of hostile, occasionally violent competition among their territorial lobstermen. Ruth Thomas, daughter of one of Fort Niles's most cutthroat lobstermen, has returned home after four years at a private girls' school, determined both to resist her rich grandfather's plans to send her to college and to find her place among the island's rough-spoken personalities. Both propositions prove more difficult than the headstrong romantic expects. As Gilbert charts Ruth's attempts to decide her future, she introduces a strong dose of lobster lore and a large cast of sly villains and oddball characters. Her prose is as light-hearted and amusing as ever, though some narrative twists lack the emotional resonance of her previous work and several characters seem hemmed in as caricatures. Ruth's meeting with her estranged mother is smoothed over in an anticlimactic fashion, blunting the power of the scene, and her offbeat coming-of-age story gets going only a third of the way through the book. Nonetheless, Gilbert's comic timing grows sharper in the second half, and her gift for lively, authentic dialogue and atmospheric settings continually lights up this entertaining, and surprisingly thought-provoking, romp. 5-city author tour. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (June 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061812733X
  • ASIN: B001D78A0Q
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,842,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elizabeth Gilbert is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the short story collection, Pilgrims--a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award-nominated journalist, she works as writer-at-large for GQ. Her journalism has been published in Harper's Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

70 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on August 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Stern Men is just a great read, a highly enjoyable novel. Elizabeth Gilbert gives us a wonderful, well told story. She starts by describing the known history of two small islands off the coast of Maine: Courne Haven and Fort Niles. She quickly focuses in on the difficult birth of a baby girl, Ruth Thomas, in the late 1950s on Fort Niles. A few pages later, we meet her as an 18 year old returning home to Fort Niles after graduating from boarding school in Delaware. The story of Stern Men mainly concerns itself with what Ruth does that summer--she spends time with her idiosyncratic friends, is reuinted with her mother, who lives off the island, and finally, falls in love. While this is not a fast paced novel, I still felt compelled to read it because the story is so engaging. Ruth and her friends were in my thoughts when I was not reading the book and I couldn't wait to return to Stern Men. The book is enjoyable, the story is funny and the characters are nutty, yet still believable. I highly recommend this book.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Sue McLagan on May 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Don't wait for it to come out in paperback, it's that good. It's like a good movie: you forget to be sophisticated and think about plot and character, you just get absorbed into what feels like the real life of these people, and this place.
It's hard to believe that I've read two such good first novels in such a short space of time: Last month it was Brauner's "Love Songs of the the Tone-Deaf," and now "Stern Men." Both of these novels take you to a place that you didn't really know existed in this vast United States. Very absorbing!
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By C. Davidson on July 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Elizabeth Gilbert has written an unusual and readable book. She embellishes a simple tale of feuding Maine islanders with eccentric characters who, improbably but successfully, strive to get along (or not) in their peculiar social system.
Ruth, the protagonist in the story, is a blunt-spoken,independent, sometimes foul-mouthed young woman who has no trouble speaking her mind to the various fogies and other adults who all seem to know what is best for her. Her fresh, sarcastic, and witty responses make her come alive to the reader and provide plenty of laughs.
The novel does drag at about midpoint and delivers a fast and implausible ending that seems to have been thrown together without any preparation for the reader. Still, this is a refreshing story and a thoroughly enjoyable summer read. And the lobster facts at the beginning of each chapter are interesting as well as tied to the behavior of the book's characters. This one is worth your time and $$$.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on June 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
As I read the first 50 pages of this book, I kept dozing off, and then around page 90 was shocked by a very big secret that kept me reading until another secret was revealed, and then another, and then I was caught like a lobster in a pot and read the whole book in two sittings. The plot line of this book is very unpredictable--an original drama to say the least.
"Stern Men" will be compared to "The Shipping News" but I didn't laugh as hard, though Gilbert's writing is clever and her observations wry. The protagonist is a female who pretty much stays where she was born, not a male who leaves home. Also, the disappearing culture of lobster men and their families is different from the tourist town culture depicted in "News." Where Annie Proulx introduced each chapter of her book with a little epigram on knot tying, Gilbert introduces each chapter in her book with a relevant blurb on lobsters that seems somehow to mirror Ruth's life.
The book will also be compared to "Snow Falling on Cedars" because the characters live in an island community where everyone knows everyone and there are ethnic overtones (Swedes on Courne Haven Island and Italians and Scots Irish on Ft. Niles). All the locals rely on fishing for a living, and like the seamen in "Snow" there are petty rivalries that result in death.
"When I was a child I spoke as a child." In the beginning of the book, Ruth sees the world as a child would, and tries to make sense of it from a child's perspective. The text and dialogue reflect her childish thoughts in short direct sentences. She learns to hide under the kitchen table and become invisible. As Ruth matures, her thoughts and the book become more complex. On occasion Ruth still hides.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Sharon J Bergman on May 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Oh...a wonderful book. Great characters, and a slow, meandering and completely engaging storyline. I also really enjoyed the quiet, understanted Maine comedy. As a frequent and lifelong visitor to Maine, I can definitely vouch for the fact that Gilbert has *nailed* the pace and dialogue of the people she portrays. Such good work. Buy it, take it to Maine and enjoy.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Bryan Bickford on August 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Once Gilbert sets the story up in the first 50 pages, this book becomes a generally enjoyable summer read. The protagonist, Ruth, is an interesting character, although I had a hard time believing she was so head strong, yet as vulnerable as she appeared. There was something in the way her character was written that just rubbed me a little odd. Still, the story moves well, with interesting twists and the general plot is as quirky as promised. I agree that the ending seemed rushed and somewhat contrived. I was surprised that when I was really starting to get into the story and care about not only Ruth, but others on the islands, that there were only a handful of pages left to read. I probably should have given this book four stars, but considering I read it in a beach chair facing the Atlantic ocean, it should have affected me a little more. Still, it's a worthwhile read and good summer entertainment, just nothing award-winning.
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