Ducks, Newburyport

by Lucy Ellmann

I wish people would be a bit more careful with literary comparisons. I understand the desire to relate new stories to others that readers are more than likely familiar with in order to quickly pitch the book, but superficial comparisons that set readers up for the wrong impressions seem to be increasingly common. (The example I keep coming across is a dystopian story drawing a comparison to Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy simply because both have written famous dystopian books. But just being the same genre shouldn’t bring about a suggestion that a book’s written “in the style of” either of those authors, as was the case in Liz Harmer’s The Amateurs––a novel that had little in common with the voice or the style of prose or the narrative structure of anything I’ve read by either Atwood or McCarthy.) And I’d suggest that it’s worse––at least significantly more outrageous appearing from this reader’s perspective––when the comparison involves a landmark classic that completely changed the face of literature. For, in the case of Ducks, Newburyport, the comparison was to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I should think would require a pretty good reason for being done repeatedly as it was, though I can only really see superficial parallels between the two after finishing Ellman’s imposing tome. (One blurb specifically compares the wordplay, which is sad to consider, especially since anything resembling wordplay within this story is much closer to the word association you can expect to see in something like Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. To be fair, Ellman’s writing is much better than Penn’s, so the style works much better here, but I think it’s a stretch to call this anything resembling Joycean wordplay.)

But, much as this is a problem that can majorly harm a reader’s perception of a novel, blurbs attached to the book aren’t the fault of the author and they don’t reflect on the actual writing, so we should probably talk about the book itself. In Ducks, Newburyport, we join an unnamed narrator, a stay-at-home mother of four who also sells her baking on the side, as she works through the mundane tasks of the day while taking us on long, stream-of-conscious tirades of her various anxieties about the contemporary world in run-on sentences that last scores of pages at a time. The main narrative is interrupted periodically by a secondary story about a mountain lioness preparing her cubs to survive in the world.

Though I found it initially difficult to fit my reading to the style without breaking the flow of the narrative, I discovered plenty to appreciate with the writing once I was able to make an adjustment. An effective amount of specific details make the narrator come alive, while Ellman showcases a sarcastic wit that makes early reading a pleasure. The author also pleasantly surprised me with her incredible confidence on display with the writing, tied to a great respect given to her readers. This takes the form of important details presented without ceremony and brief references to things previously discussed that pop up unobtrusively throughout the book. With the former, heavy concepts, such as the baggage that continually follows the narrator after the death of her mother, will get interrupted by worries about the mundane here and now almost as quickly as they’re introduced. (It strongly evokes the effective, humanizing moments in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and it similarly humanizes and underlines the significance of the discussion with Ellman’s use of the strategy.) With regard to the latter, savvy readers are invited to consider parallels to previous concepts, but the guidance is so minimal, the touch is so gentle, that these references are likely easy to pass by; this effectively maintains flow while rewarding observant readers with additional layers of consideration, which likely contributes to a richness that could reasonably grow with subsequent readings.

As the story progresses, however, the discussion grows more and more repetitive and huge chunks of the book become tiresome to get through. I enjoyed what we built to by the end, and I appreciated the ways the intertwining narratives came together, but I was struck with a notion that Ducks, Newburyport greatly overstayed its welcome, that it could have been improved by editing it down to maybe one-third of its length. I respect the fact that this could arguably have the potential to kill a lot of what I loved, but I also acknowledge that the things I liked weren’t enough to offset the difficult wade through the book’s centre. Ducks, Newburyport is a convincing portrayal of someone overwhelmed by life, but it really needed some serious pruning before I could view it as anything phenomenal.