|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