Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

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.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann”

  1. I really like your point about ‘elevating’ this woman. So often we dismiss stay-at-home mothers and their efforts, but as you and I know both well know, this is basically the hardest job out there!!!

    1. Yes, that’s what made me so excited to see it on multiple award lists. Because it’s not really a book “about” anything but it’s the lived experience of so many women and families out there. And I loved that the book acknowledged the work of stay-at-home moms and the privilege of it but also the chaos and monotony!

  2. This is an excellent review! I’m so glad you ended up liking this one, and that my review helped you decide to pick it up. Months later I still think about this book often and have so much respect for what Ellmann accomplishes with it. It does make such a powerful statement about whose voices are “worthy” of literary fiction, and why we shouldn’t overlook those that we think are “ordinary” or “unimportant” because they’re really not. I’m not a mother or a baker myself but still felt seen in these pages. I’m thrilled that you found Ducks so relatable, and I’ll absolutely still be pushing this book on anyone and everyone I can convince to pick it up! 🙂

    1. This is one that will stay with me for a while too, I think. And while I did see a lot of myself as a mother on the page, I don’t think you have to be a parent to find something to relate to, as you attest to. I’m going to be trying to convince others to read this one too!

    1. I totally understand that because I felt the same way but it is definitely worth it. And while it isn’t the easiest book to put down and pick up because there aren’t a lot of obvious stopping points, it’s very readable. I got it from the library and only had one renewal and was able to finish it well within time. (Although now our library is closed until further notice so I didn’t need to worry about it, I guess!)

  3. So, I read Emily’s review and thought, “Yeah! I should read this. Oh, it’s almost 1,000 pages. Well….” Then I saw Anne’s review and decided, “I should totally read this. 1,000 pages isn’t bad. I’m going to see if the library has it!” I get to the library and see just how physically big the book is and think, “Not today, Satan.” Now, thanks to your review, I think I’m just going to have to give in and read it. I think about it so much that I might as well spend time reading it, and now that the library where I work is closed (and the one I patronize has an e-book copy), I could probably get it down in a reasonable amount of time.

    One question: if the whole thing is one sentence, how does the author transition from a mother to a lioness and do so clearly?

    1. You should read it! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If it helps, I read it in just under 5 weeks. I got it from the library and was only allowed to renew it once. Of course, now the library has closed indefinitely so I needn’t have rushed.

      The main narration never stops (as in there isn’t a period until the very end) but it sort of pauses mid-thought and then there’s a paragraph break into the lioness’ perspective. It’s very clearly delineated and those sections are written in a normal manner. Then we jump back into the narrator’s thoughts. It can take a little bit to re-orient because sometimes time has passed but Ellmann does a good job at this, I found.

  4. I actually bought this book a while ago so I wouldn’t have to worry about the pressure of a due date. But, of course, I haven’t read it yet. (I probably would have by now if I’d gotten it from the library!) I suspect I’ll like it for all the reasons you did! Great review!

    1. I rushed to finish it when I got it from the library and now it’s just sitting on my shelf since I can’t return it! I think you’ll like it too. It felt really daunting to start but once I got going, I wanted to keep reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s