Posted in 2 paws on October 4, 2015

stern men


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.”


This was not a great book. It was ok and parts were interesting, but not a book I would have picked up myself. The characters were shallow (at least I couldn’t find any depth) and there was way too much description that wasn’t needed. Some yes, but could have cut out a lot of the book and it might have been better.

I am a speed reader and this one was hard to get through. lots of foul language (which I suppose should be expected considering they are red necks but in the north east) and idiot characters. Some people said it was funny (in fact one lady in our book club thought parts were funny and I did see some humor but not much) but I wouldn’t call it funny.

Most of us did not like the book and some didn’t finish.  I’m giving it 2 paws.