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Stern Men Paperback – February 24, 2009
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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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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!
A gritty true read with many strange folks. Covert lobster wars still exist, and a smart lobsterman knows and protects the territory. It is not an easy life.
The book itself seems good so far, I'll update the review when I finish it.