Stern Men

Gilbert, Elizabeth

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000
ISBN 10: 0395836220 / ISBN 13: 9780395836224
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Synopsis: In this big, wise, funny first novel from a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist, a resilient young woman brings an end to an age-old fishing feud. Elizabeth Gilbert's debut collection, PILGRIMS, was hailed as "a superior collection of stories about women who are as tough as they look, though perhaps not quite as tough as they think they are" (Glamour). Stern Men brings us Gilbert's toughest, smartest, most lovable heroine yet.
On two remote islands off the coast of Maine, the local lobstermen have fought savagely for generations over the fishing rights to the ocean waters between them. Young Ruth Thomas is born into this feud, a daughter of Fort Niles destined to be at war with the men of Courne Haven. Eighteen years old, smart as a whip, irredeemably unromantic, Ruth returns home from boarding school determined to throw her education overboard and join the "stern men" who work the lobster boats. She is certain of one thing: she will not surrender control of her life to the wealthy Ellis family, which has always had a sinister hold over the island. On her side are Fort Niles's eccentric residents: the lovable Mrs. Pommeroy and her various deadbeat sons; sweet old Senator Simon, on a mission to dig up shipwreck treasure; and Simon's twin brother, Angus Addams, the most ruthless lobsterman alive.
The feud between the islands escalates daily -- until Ruth gets a glimpse of Owney Wishnell, a silent young Courne Haven Adonis with a prenatural gift for catching lobsters. Their passion is fast, furious, and forbidden. Their only hope is an unlikely truce.
For readers who love the work of John Irving, STERN MEN is a comedy that is as smart and finely crafted as it is entertaining. STERN MEN captures a particular American spirit with on-the-mark dialogue and a fine funny touch that pierces our notions of commerce and class. This is a large-canvas novel with a heroine destined for greatness in spite of herself.

Review: 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."

The beauty of Gilbert's book is that she gives us an isolated rural culture, and refuses to settle for finding humor in its backwardness. Instead she gives us a community of uneducated but razor-sharp wits, and produces an impressive comic debut. --Claire Dederer

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Title: Stern Men
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: 2000
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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