When I first saw Ducks, Newburyport on the shelf at the bookstore and when I first read about it, I thought, “Well, there’s a book I’ll never read.” The story clocks in at 988 pages. It’s a stream-of-consciousness novel, told mostly in one rambling sentence. The parts that aren’t this stream-of-conscious are told from the perspective of a mountain lion. “I should probably read Ulysses first, ” I thought.
Yet I kept coming back to Ducks and the more I read about it, the more intrigued I was. (Emily’s review here and Anne’s review here solidified that I needed to read this one.) I’m so glad I did because this book is a truly excellent and unique read. Over and over again as I read I felt that if you ever wanted to peek inside my brain, this is probably what it would look like. While I have more self-confidence than the narrator and I don’t worry about gun violence to the same extent that she does, the leaps and bounds she made between thoughts, the petty concerns (and large ones) that she carries with her, and the deep and constant concern she has for her children were all things I could relate to.
The unnamed narrator is a mom to four kids, living in Ohio. She’s a stay-at-home mom who also works at home baking cinnamon rolls and tarte tatins that she sells through local businesses. She’s a shy and unsure woman, worried about her children, especially Stacy, her eldest daughter from her first marriage. Her current marriage to Leo fills her with confidence but she also has a lot of regret over Stacey’s childhood and her own relationship with her parents who are deceased.
For a long time, the book doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. But as it continues, the narrator’s thoughts spool in on themselves, folding back, repeating, unraveling, circling (not unlike a cinnamon roll actually). She gets songs stuck in her head. She worries about relationships with her kids’ friends’ parents. She wishes that she was better at sticking up for herself. She recalls her childhood – her mother’s long illness, her missed opportunities with a favourite aunt, what her father really thought of her. She is broken in many ways, a thought she continually comes back to.
Interrupting these thoughts is the story of a mountain lion. A lioness with three cubs, a wild creature who unwittingly becomes a victim of humans. These stories are initially separate but steadily become entwined and as the book progresses we see the parallels and connections between this normal woman and this wild cougar. It was wonderful to witness Ellmann’s writing in these two very different voices. She is clearly immensely talented; it’s no easy feat to maintain a voice like the narrator’s over hundreds of pages while keeping the reader enthralled and yet she does just that. At the same time, the scenes of the lioness are compelling and beautiful and have a raw, earthly beauty to them that celebrates the wild nature of the creature.
Perhaps more than anything else I love how this novel elevates the ordinary life of an ordinary woman to the level of literary greatness. To give such weight to the thoughts and life of a very average woman feels like a powerful act even today and I found a lot here that I could relate to. I know the size of this novel will turn some readers off but I’m so glad I read it and if you are at all on the fence about Ducks, Newburyport, I think you should read it too.