Ducks, Newburyport is a masterpiece. I finished it three days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t even know how to describe it. It is the running monologue inside the head of an unnamed Ohio mother of four (transplanted from New England), and it is a single sentence that goes on for 1000 pages. It is punctuated with commas; there is no terminal punctuation until the final page. The only breaks in the monologue are sporadic, brief sections that give us a peek into a mountain lioness’s interior thoughts which, compared to the woman’s stream of consciousness, are clear, direct, structured, and punctuated. With paragraphs! And periods!
The contrast between the thought patterns of the human mother and the mother wildcat are stark: the thoughts of the mother of four in America are memory, big thoughts, the mundane, deep thoughts, brand names in the kitchen, recollections of dreams, and incessant brain chatter about nothing and everything. The wildcat mother of a litter of cubs, on the other hand, is precise in her thoughts. There is no mental noise. She senses the external world — the scent of rain, the tremble of flowers that helps her distinguish between prey and not prey, predator and not predator.
What sort of creature cannot sleep contentedly on a warm rock, or drape itself across a few high branches and be still?– Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
The lioness’s thoughts connect directly to surroundings and survival. And her story parallels the Ohio housewife’s. The woman and the lioness are both mothers caring for their young. They both protect them from the dangers of man, which include violence, pollution — water, air, noise, you name it — climate change, predation, violence, mindless destruction for selfish means, and of course, violence.
the fact that in domestic violence cases, women are five times more likely to be killed if there’s a gun on the premises,– Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
I am in awe of how Lucy Ellmann wove this story, and wrote it in a way that I was willing to, and wanted to keep reading a 1000. Page. Sentence. I am amazed by how perfectly she wrote the mental chatter so that I was like, I’ve thought that exact thought, that exact way, get out of my head. She was able to make a 1000 page single sentence readable, relatable, and funny. And among the ordinary, the worry, the intuition, and the baking tips, she includes moments of transcendent beauty.
the fact that you know the leaves are enjoying this warm sun going right through them, the fact that the leaves seem to be sunbathing, letting the sun lick them, the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize you’re simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth, for just a little while,– Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
The thing that leaves me gobsmacked, though, is that Ellmann is able to weave tension, foreshadowing, and a story that goes somewhere, into this stream of consciousness. Among all the chatter, a lot of which is noise, she drops in signal. She builds to a climax. This is the genius in this book. Through this unstoppable monologue of the daily toil of raising four kids in Ohio, running a pie-making business, being a cancer survivor, grieving over the death of parents, and dealing with unwanted drop-in visitors — a monologue which paints a vivid, familiar picture of everyday life for a white middle-class mother in America, with the grocery lists and political news and errands and emotional baggage and child-rearing — the author weaves in the woman’s incredulity at how violent, and how carelessly destructive we as humans are, and how selfish and entitled, and that these attitudes and behaviors have an impact.
Every person shot and killed in the United States is a mother’s child. Every being we destroy would like to carry on its life without us screwing it over. Our prioritization to protect guns and big corporations over life is astounding, and the author conveys this coherently and compellingly in a 1000 page sentence. I can’t get over it. Huge thanks to my friends Elizabeth and Daryl who both told me, “I think you might like this book.”