Friday, March 29, 2019

Stern Men - Elizabeth Gilbert

Summary:  Before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her beloved memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, she wowed critics everywhere with Stern Men -- a wise and charming novel set off the coast of Maine.  Ruth Thomas is born into a feud fought for generations by two groups of local lobster men over fishing rights for the waters that lie between their respective islands.  At eighteen, she has returned from boarding school -- smart as a whip, feisty, and irredeemably unromantic - determined to join the "stern men" and work the lobster boats.  As the feud escalates, Ruth proves herself to be an unforgettable American heroine who is destined for greatness -- and love -- despite herself. (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray Love -- a memoir I adored but likely read before I started this blog.  As such, it isn't reviewed here, though you can read our review of her novel, The Signature of All Things.  I picked up Stern Men because I loved my experience with her memoir, the plot looked interesting, and because it was lauded by the San Francisco Chronicle as "howlingly funny."

Stern Men starts out with a "once upon a time" kind of vibe. You know, the one where the omniscient narrator gives a quick history of the island and settles in to tell a story, already knowing how it ends.  I really thought I was going to love the book at this point -- the history of and long standing war between two islands over lobster fishing and introduction of a peculiar cast of characters was particularly irresistible.  The history finally comes to a head with Ruth Thomas, returned from school to the only home she has ever known.  All right, here we go! Up to this point, though lovely, it felt like mostly set up, but this -- rubs hands together to warm up reading fingers -- is where the story will take off.  Unfortunately the characters and backstory just kept coming and, interesting though they were, I started wishing for a glossary of characters to keep things straight in my mind.  Eighty pages later, I was still waiting for things to get cracking and more confused than ever about who was who and what was what.  On top of that -- the swearing.  I consider myself a fairly desensitized person when I am reading for myself (it's a different story if I'm reading for my kiddos) but even I was bothered by the sheer volume of profanity.  I realize that the language is probably perfectly in keeping with the salty lobster man stereotype, but it overwhelmed some of the characters to the point that I just wanted them to stop. talking.   I had waded a third of the way through the book before I realized that I was forcing myself to read a book I no longer had an interest in reading.  This  'howlingly funny' book...wasn't.  I didn't feel like a basic plot had emerged, the promised feud hadn't escalated, and destined love hadn't even hinted at appearing. Ruth hadn't even set foot in a lobster boat yet, and I was sick and tired of waiting for all of it.

One of the many reasons I took a break from book blogging a few years back was that I felt weighed down by the number of books I felt compelled to read and review out of a sense of duty.  I'd start one with hope but end up slogging through, my once unquenchable desire to read completely quelled by the onerous task of having to finish that book before I could move on to anything else.  I call it being "book blocked".   I promised myself when I returned to blogging that I would no longer read out of a sense of obligation.  I'd give a book 100 pages of my time (maybe more if it was gigantic) and if I simply wasn't feeling it, that was that.  There are just too many potentially amazing books in my stack to waste time stumbling over a book block. 

If you haven't guessed at this point, I did not finish Stern Men.  The characters and backstory were varied and compelling, but the lack of movement and sheer volume of profanity are what guided my decision.  A less sensitive, more patient reader might find more to love, but I did not.  

My Rating: 2 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  I can't speak to anything past page 106, but there was a massive amount of profanity, especially of the F and GD variety, often spit out with machine-gun rapidity.  

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