Review: Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert

Ruth Thomas lives on Fort Niles, an island off the coast of Maine, where the main occupation is lobster-hunting.  Raised mainly on Fort Niles by her father and her neighbor Mrs. Pommeroy, Ruth’s upbringing is punctuated with time spent in Delaware boarding school.  Upon her graduation she returns to Fort Niles determined to start a life there, despite the apparent wishes of her mother’s family, the posh Ellises who only summer in Fort Niles.

I liked Eat Pray Love – not unreservedly, but a lot.  I liked it when God told her to go back to bed, and I cried when the medicine man remembered her.  (I don’t know why that made me cry but it did.)  I thought Elizabeth Gilbert wrote most beautifully.  When I started Stern Men, I truly expected not to like it, and I was surprised to find it engaging as well as well-written.  I don’t know why I was surprised!  I liked Eat Pray Love!  In Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert creates vivid characters and then makes incisive observation after incisive observation about them.

As I got further and further through the book, though, I was increasingly bothered by the shortage of plot.  So yeah, Ruth loves Mrs. Pommeroy; she finds her china-shop mother and the Ellis family difficult; she is attracted to Owney Wishnell of the Wishnell Lobster Dynasty.  This went along, not exactly in circles, but it went around a little bit, interspersed with backstory.  A lot of backstory happened, backstory on Ruth’s parents, on Fort Niles and its lobster wars with the nearby Courne Haven Island.  It felt like adding texture to the story, but then suddenly at the end, every piece of backstory and every piece of normal story got resolved lickety-split in a tidy little bow.

Aggravating.  There is a part of me that loves a happy, tidy ending.  It’s a big part.  I want everyone to live happily ever after.  But most of me finds it frustrating.  Life is not tidy!  That’s why it’s interesting.  I like me an ambiguous ending, that suggests the possibilities of happiness and pain – I always assume it’s happiness (that happy ending part of me!), but at least the writer’s not pretending pain’s not one of the options.

So here’s what I am wondering – what does an ending need to resolve?  I don’t like a book that just stops, but I also don’t like it to take every single element of the plot and tie them all up together.  How much resolution has to happen?

12 thoughts on “Review: Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. Interesting question. I want to read Eat, Pray, Love, and must be one of the last people in the world to do so…. But I think that all books pose a central question (what is it to be loved, is it possible to make sense of life, etc) and whilst it’s true that books pose lots of questions en route to the ending, there’s probably one big underlying one. And to my mind the best resolution is not an ‘answer’, because there are no answers realistically, but a different presentation of the question, a different perspective on it. So I suppose I’m looking for enlightenment rather than closure, if that makes any sense!

    • It makes excellent sense! I love a book that explores really major issues without being preachy or trying to answer everything – like The Color Purple. I read once that the thing a character wants on the first page of a novel, s/he should definitively have (or not have if you want to be tragic) on the last page. Which seems a bit limiting.

  2. Well, I like closure. I like MOST of the mysteries solved, but I can be okay with a few dangling ends, as long as they dangle purposefully – I don’t like feeling that an author was just too lazy to answer questions he/she raised.

    But here’s what I don’t like AT ALL: a “Jodi Picoult” ending, which solves a genuine emotional tangle with a completely out-of-left-field cheesy event that makes the central drama of the book moot.

    • I feel like I should make a compendium of endings. Take all my favorite books and make lists of the kind of endings they have, and then I would make a definitive judgment about what kind of ending is best under what circumstances. Because I like ambiguity, but not too much; like with Sunshine, I would have liked to know a bit more by the end about what differentiates Con from Bo, etc.

      And yeah, the Jodi Picoult make-stuff-up ending, I do not like.

  3. I want ALL tidiness at the end, precisely BECAUSE life doesn’t work that way, even though I desperately want it to! :–) But I agree with Mum that it shouldn’t be done in a cheesy way…

    • The tidy-tidy endings don’t bother me as much in kids’ books than in adults’ books. I don’t know why! I don’t think I’m the kind of person who thinks children should be protected from the knowledge that life isn’t perfect and tidy. But still I am much more forgiving of a kids’ book that ends all sunshine and roses.

      (Wouldn’t it be nice if life had more happy endings?)

  4. I’m not sure that I have the answer either. This is likely why I like series so well…. I like having multiple books in which the author can sort out the resolution, without it feeling rushed. I was very intrigued to read this review since I’ve had Stern Men on my TBR list ever since reading EPL, which I ADORED, absolutely devoured, and am looking forward to reading again and again. I’m counting down the days till her next non-fiction work, Committed, is released. But after reading this post, I’m not so sure that I’ll take the time to read SM. Life’s too short & there are just too many books:)

    • Oo, yeah, I love series books, when I can find a really good series! There is something so cool about serialization of a story. I’m addicted to TV shows too!

      I’m looking forward to her next book too, though I’m wondering whether I’ll like it as much. I fret so much over family-type memoirs, and whether anyone’s feelings were hurt over what the authors put into the book!

  5. I haven’t read anything by this author yet. I enjoyed your reflections on the first book as you reviewed this one – it made for an interesting, effective review!

    • If you’re going to read something by her, let it be Eat Pray Love. It’s very well-written, and I am always interested in hearing about other people’s experiences of God. Plus, she goes and lives in Indonesia with a medicine man! How good’s that? 🙂

  6. Totally off topic I know (please forgive me) but I’ve just come from Hazra’s site where I was interested to read your views on Breaking Dawn and decided I had to visit to say how much I agreed with you. A great blog, I’ve very much enjoyed reading some of your other posts – it was nice to meet you.

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