Ducks, Newburyport
May 25, 2020 4:06 AM - by Lucy Ellmann - Subscribe

Ducks, Newburyport is a 2019 novel by British author Lucy Ellmann which won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. The bulk of the book is a very long, digressive, free-associative stream-of-consciousness in the mind of a forty-something mother-of-four in small-town post-Trump, pre-pandemic Ohio.

Some of the blurbs from the (UK) publisher's product page:

“The time and care [Ellmann] lavishes on her narrator seem like their own form of political speculation—that every individual is owed an unending devotion, and that such devotion, applied universally, might change the fate of the world.” —THE NEW YORKER

"Is it any good? Oh my word, yes. Reading it at this point in time feels like an act of human solidarity, a commitment to a world of truth and reason." —LITERARY REVIEW

“Sei Shonagon [and] Walt Whitman… are the intellectual company Ellmann keeps. … Ducks, Newburyport [is] as accumulative, as pointed, as death-addled, as joyous, as storied, as multitudinous and as large as life.” —Martin Riker, THE NEW YORK TIMES

“A feat of simultaneous compression and expansion... Among many other things, [Ducks, Newburyport] is a rebuke to the frequent downgrading of the 'domestic' in literature.” —Alex Clark, THE GUARDIAN

“Resplendent in ambition, humour, and humanity. … In Ducks, Newburyport, Ellmann has created a wisecracking Mrs Dalloway for the internet age.” —THE FINANCIAL TIMES

“A novel that rewards perseverance, is truly unique, and feels like an absence in your life when you finish it.” —THE OBSERVER
posted by misteraitch (5 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I posted this partly because I wanted to publicly boast somewhere of actually having finished this book after 40 days' reading, but partly because I'd be very interested to hear of others' opinions about it, should any be forthcoming. Did you finish it? How easy or hard a read was it for you? Did you throw it aside in frustration part way through? What did you make of the protagonist and her family? What does she mean by 'the numbness of muted beings'? How well did the lioness sub-plot work for you?

Personally, while I'm in awe of this book & of how one person put all those words together, and I admire it greatly, I didn't quite love it unreservedly: I felt like I was too long in its company not to be irritated by some aspects of its style. While it predates the pandemic it will be inextricably linked in my mind with the 2020 lockdown, without which I may just not have felt like I had the time to read it.
posted by misteraitch at 4:20 AM on May 25, 2020

I love it. I haven't finished it though because I got to a sad part and then temporarily out it down and haven't gone back.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:44 PM on May 25, 2020

I read it and found it amazing! I loved the narrator (well, I guess if I didn't I would've bailed pretty quickly) and thought the interwoven linear story was a smart move - it gave me a breather, and it advanced the timeline (time lion?) and plot in a more organic way than a section break would have.

I pretty much only read at bedtime, so I was with this book for a very looonng time. I was surprised at how easy it was to fall into her "stream" every night. The narrator's neuroticism and sense of humor were familiar and entertaining. Highlights for me were the story of the cold medicine fiasco (she knew she could never sue because there was no way she was ever showing the photos in public), and the endless rant about the overly rigorous hygienist. And when she would mention being "broken" over the loss of her mother, my own heart would actually ache reading that (but I am such a soft touch, ach!). I also loved her descriptions of her aunt and her tidy life.

I thought it was wonderful how Ellmann got across the different levels of activity and moods of the household, with the narrator sometimes being alone, sometimes being in the middle of a chaotic breakfast, but she can be in her head because she is the cook, etc. It was just an amazing, show-offy accomplishment, and I feel enriched for having read it.


If I were to nitpick, I would say the climax and ending of the two interwoven stories were maybe too melodramatic, or too neat and unrealistic. But after such an investment in time and effort, it was also a relief. Anything but a good outcome would have been disappointing. Maybe there was a middle way, a better resolution, but happy closure with a big, pretty bow felt very nice!
posted by hiker U. at 5:04 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just finished this book yesterday after somewhat doggedly pushing through it and I am glad I read it. It's certainly different and, I think, a pretty important and unparalleled work in the canon of female characters. It captures something that I don't think I've ever seen done elsewhere and in a way that is pretty unique. Did I like it? I'm still sitting with that. It's making me think.

I normally read in bed as kind of a wind down activity before going to sleep but I couldn't do that with this book; it got me too anxious, as if the narrator's neuroses became my own, or something. I had to have something else going at the same time that was bedtime-readable. Overall it kind of reminded me of the types of non-stop snippets of thought we are exposed to if we are frequent social media users, like the stream of consciousness someone's Twitter account would be if they posted everything that popped into their heads and shared every interesting article they came across.

One thing I found interesting was the very brief glimpses we got of what the narrator was doing while she was thinking and how mundane those things were: baking, driving in the car, at the mall, in the washroom crying (at least twice) watching musicals with her daughter (I guess this is similar to what hiker U describes above, reading in preview mode!). The actual plot of the novel is almost non-existent if you look at the events side-by-side; if the novel were just that I think it would be the length of a short story. As such, the two interwoven stories were surprisingly trite compared to the actual novel and the multitudes it contained.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:34 PM on August 9, 2020

I found this New Yorker piece (Can One Sentence Capture All Of Life?) on it really thought provoking, particularly after reading the novel.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:38 PM on August 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

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