This review has been a long time coming. Not because I’ve put off writing it, but because it took me so bloody long to read this book: two whole months which is definitely a record for me. At 988 pages, many of those pages including just one long run-on sentence, this book isn’t for everyone. But I hate to be left out of a literary sensation, so I forged ahead with Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann despite my hatred of long books.
There are two story lines in this book; the main one that takes up 90% of the pages is the stream of consciousness of one woman who is a mother of four children living in Ohio, USA. She runs a small business out of her home creating baked goods for local restaurants and shops, and is married to her second husband Leo, whom she adores. The second and much smaller story line is that of a mother cougar who’s roaming the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, searching for her cubs that were abducted by some well-meaning but entirely mistaken humans. The two story lines do intersect at some points, although not in a dramatic way. But! There is significant drama in this book, unfortunately you have to reach the last 50 pages of the book to find any of it. People who love a good plot-driven novel will want to run far, far away from this book, but for those who like to settle in for the long haul, you’ll be rewarded if you make it to the end.
What struck me most about this book was how relatable the protagonist (who is never named) is. I’m going to guess most men won’t identify with her, but as a mother who works from home, I found myself nodding along to her rants more than I’d care to admit. She’s working in her kitchen while her family moves around her, and because she’s literally in her home most of the time, she’s still expected to cater to her kids needs at every moment, so she’s constantly interrupted. Her train of thought is choppy, difficult to follow, and jumps from topic to topic within the same line on the page. It’s not always pleasant to read about, but it’s so accurate at the same time. While pondering what to make for dinner she’s recalling a horrific terrorist attack from a few months ago. While stirring the flour mixture she’s wondering why so many American politicians bow down to the NRA (National Rifle Association). While lamenting the death of her mother, she wonders why her teenage daughter Stacy seems to hate her. Her thoughts go round and round, repeating more often than not, and creating a tension that the reader can sense in not only the woman, but themselves. Her preoccupation with the proliferation of guns in America is a particular topic that seems to fascinate and repulse her, and it’s visited over and over again throughout the narrative. As a Canadian, it’s hard for me to guess if this is common for my southern neighbors, or if she’s more anxious than most. My American readers are also welcome to comment on this, I’m genuinely curious how often the topic of guns comes up for them…
Pollution, and the worsening state of the environment is another common subject, her anxiety worsened by the fact that her eldest son Ben is doing a school project analyzing the chemicals found in their town’s water supply; spoiler alert, it’s not good! She tries to make environmentally friendly choices, but Stacy is always pointing out how much more is needed to make a difference, so she ends up feeling hopeless more often than not. She’ll find herself getting annoyed over something minor, like a family member not putting something back where it came from, then admonishing herself because so many people have way bigger problems like the increase in war refugees in the middle east. I must admit I make these crazy jumps in my head too. I’ll be annoyed that my husband left his dirty socks on the bedroom floor AGAIN but then I’ll remind myself that I’m lucky we even have bedroom floor in the first place while others live in straw huts with dirt floors. So although her interior monologue may come across as insane to some, I am (sadly) very similar.
The juxtaposition of the lioness and the mother is what makes this book even more interesting, because it leaves the reader wondering ‘why’. Is Ellmann trying to demonstrate the parallels between a human mother and an animal mother? Or is the cat’s outdoor roaming meant to be a soothing balm to the readers after the harried musings that take up the majority of the book? I must admit there were times I considered giving up reading this as I grew frustrated with the length of it, but every time the cat’s story returned, it gave me more energy to keep going. And now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on the experience, I’m glad I kept at it. Reading fiction isn’t always an easy task (but if you WANT it to be easy, you can make it easy, and you should be proud of what you read regardless of its difficulty, reading is good for us no matter what it is) and this book is the perfect example of that. There is one thing that reading should always be, and that’s rewarding, which Ducks most definitely is.
Great review! I’ve seen one other person comment about the interesting perspective of the mother cougar, and I’m surprised to hear that it was what kept you going. I’m pretty intimidates by the length of this but I’m hoping I can get to it during my break. Congratulations on finishing it! 🙂
thank you! My best advice is to take your time, and read other books in between. I would return to it every few days feeling refreshed and ready for more 🙂
i’m amazed you took on a book of that length. i’d have been distracting myself with short reads along the way.
I did that too-haha there’s no way I could stick to one book for that length of time!
I think I enjoyed your review more than I might enjoy the book, ha! I love the image with the book in a bowl with a spoon 🙂
Thanks Tierney. I must admit I think about you alot, I’m sorry I haven’t had time to visit your blog lately. How are you doing/feeling these days?
Thanks so much and I am doing okay and taking one day at a time still but overall okay, thanks 🙂
Good good I’m so glad to hear that. I’m sorry I haven’t been visiting your site lately but I think of you alot!!!
Well, I definitely think you deserve a reward! The thought of a thousand pages of stream of consciousness brings me out in a rash, however well done it might be. I don’t think this one will ever trouble my TBR but I enjoyed your review – I shall make a list of all the long books I can’t be bothered reading, and you can read them for me and tell me what they’re about. Thanks in advance! 😉
sure sure sure I’ll get right on it! LOL
Oh, I’m so glad to read your review as I just started this one yesterday! Initially I thought I’d never ever read it but every review of it seemed to be largely positive and I’ve decided to give it a shot. Like you, I recognize a lot of myself and my experience of motherhood already in the narrator.
It’s FRIGHTENING how similar her stream of consciousness is to mine. Except for all the guns and shooting stuff…
Me too! I can see how the book wouldn’t work for some readers but the leaps she makes and the connections from one thought to another feel so familiar to me! Plus I’m reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with my daughters right now so even those thoughts seem like my own!
Me too! This is so much how my mind works! And I’m even reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with my girls right now so all those connections make so much sense to me!
I can’t think of another blogger who brought up a secondary plot line about a big cat. It’s so wild how bloggers emphasize different parts of a book. There are two things holding me back from reading this book: 1) the length, and 2) when I think stream-of-conscious, my brain goes right to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, whose books I find extremely irritating and difficult, if not impossible, to get through. Does Ellmann write like them, or is it more jumpy like a mom who is thinking too many thoughts?
Yes, Americans do think about guns that much. The shootings happen, but there’s also the simulated training. When your five-year-old kid has to go through an active shooter training drill that involves the police entering the school and firing blanks while your teachers pretend to fall down dead…yeah, lots of parents are worried about this constantly.
JESUS does that really happen in schools? My daughter has ‘lockdown’ drills where they have to hide and be really quiet, but nothing where the police get involved.
And I would say re: the book, it’s more like jumpy mom thoughts, the stream of consciousness isn’t too hard to follow once you get into the rhythm of it.
It really, really does. I’ve even down active shooter drills, sans police officer with a gun with blanks, at colleges.
Congrats on finishing this one – I can see where it would be the one that might tempt you past your anti-chunkster tendencies. I read her debut novel and quite liked it and I dabbled in this one but I’m not sure if I’ll return to it (it was a library copy and this definitely is not a book to read from the library). Does it make you curious about her earlier writing, or do you feel like this is THE book of hers that you would connect to and you’re fine to leave it there?
Honestly, I just read it because I didn’t want to be left out LOL Will I actively seek out more of her books? Probably not, unless there’s lots of buzz about her next one again.
Fair enough. After all, you’ve read the equivalent of three or four at this point, eh? 🙂
I wish Goodreads understood haha it keeps reminding me I’m behind in my goal for the year 🙂
The mother’s rambling thoughts is the reason I want to read this book. I just know it’s going to feel very familiar!
High five for reading such a chunkster! I bought it so I wouldn’t have to worry about library due dates, but haven’t started it yet. Who knows when that will happen…
It sounds like that’s why alot of people are reading the book rather than getting it out of a library. Perhaps a new sales strategy for authors! haha