The unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport is a 40-something Ohio housewife who works from home making pies and cinnamon rolls for restaurants. She is a survivor of cancer, and she and her husband Leo are both working very hard to pay off her medical bills. She has four children, a sulky teenager, Stacy, from her first marriage and three young children from her second.
Ducks, Newburyport consists mostly of her mental ramblings as she goes about her day, a timid woman who rarely speaks her mind and is obsessed by her failures as a parent and daughter and by violent incidents in the news. The book almost completely consists of one 1,000-page sentence, if you can call a bunch of phrases beginning with “the fact that” or sometimes just lists of words a sentence. Periodically, this monologue is broken by a few paragraphs about a female cougar and her cubs.
Ducks, Newburyport breaks just about every rule connected with literature. It breaks the Strunk and White rule about not using “the fact that” about 50 times per page. It uses no traditional sentence structure or paragraphing except in the lion sections. It breaks notions of narrative. (It’s not stream-of-consciousness.) And it has a plot, sort of, but not in the traditional sense. I’m not sure if the novel is an elaborate joke or just Ellman thumbing her nose at the rules and winning awards while she does it. Lots of people have compared it to Ulysses, but Ulysses is more poetic. The narrative style alone may drive you nuts.
I noticed that Ellman gets a few things wrong. Some are to do with the age of her character, who makes lots of cultural references, many of which are too old for her. Certainly, the narrator is interested in old movies and songs, but the mistakes I’m talking about have more to do with Ellman being closer to my age than her narrator’s. She talks about everyone having their tonsils out when she was young, but that’s a 50’s or early 60’s thing rather than an 80’s. And similarly, she says just about every woman in America is on hormone replacement therapy, but that wasn’t even being prescribed as much when I was hitting menopause, and I’m older than Ellman. Some of her verbal habits, like calling underwear me-oh-mys just seem ridiculous and old-fashioned. Of course, this last could be characterization.
I also thought Ellman has been living in the U. K. too long to get an American housewife quite right. Just a small example is her repeated references to Bath Oliver biscuits. I doubt if many Americans know what those are, even if they’ve eaten them. I had to look them up, and I have eaten them. In general, as well, Americans don’t eat beans on toast, a phrase that she repeats excessively. Of course, again, that could just be a phrase that’s lodged in her head.
These are small things that you’d think her editor would have caught, if editors even edit anymore.
Did I like it? As soon as I got a feel for what the novel would be like, I assumed I wouldn’t finish it and kept waiting to decide to stop reading. But I found it oddly hypnotic, and I finished it. I found the narrator annoying as well as unreliable. She says she doesn’t remember things, but 80% of the novel is her memories. She also says she doesn’t remember her dreams and then relates them to the tune of several a page sometimes—another rule broken—which I found irritating, because I don’t like reading about dreams in fiction.
Would I read it again? No way. Does it deserve two (at least) prestigious literary awards? I have no idea.
The Lesser Bohemians