Lucy Ellmann

Ducks, Newburyport

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Ducks, Newburyport Summary

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Lucy Ellmann’s work of literary fiction Ducks, Newburyport (2019) follows the scattered and tangential thoughts of an Ohio housewife as she struggles to contend with the political and social environment of the current era, as well as her lonely and distant family life. The novel is enormous, at more than 1,000 pages but has no clear plot. Instead, Ellmann wanders in long sentences, spanning nearly 100 pages in some stretches, as her narrator makes associations and leaps, considers the facts of her existence, and contends with cultural apathy and an impending climate disaster.

The novel begins as it proceeds, with long sweeping sentences and wandering tangents. There are two primary threads in the plot—the first is the voice of an Ohio housewife and former college professor, who now works from home baking pies for local restaurants. The second thread is narrated by a mountain lion, whose relationship to the narrator is only hinted at toward the end of the novel. The mountain lion offers an animalistic perspective on topics such as climate change and landscape, while the primary narrator, who remains unnamed, considers the human impact on those systems.

The narrator, though now working at home, is not particularly old. She is middle-aged, with four children and a mostly loving, though distant husband named Leo. She used to teach college, but a recent cancer scare led her to give up her work to stay at home, while Leo pays for the household expenses. However, instead of remaining idle, the narrator takes up work making pies for local restaurants; many of her musings come in the kitchen, as she works over pie dough and fillings. Other recurring characters include the narrator’s four children, all of whom are distant from their parents, and her cats and chickens.

Less important than the narrator’s personal life, however, is the natural and cultural landscape in which she lives. In Ohio, a solid Trump state, the narrator feels isolated and frightened. She is surrounded by dead lakes and the remnants of failed enterprise, gun-toters, and fake news. She feels disoriented and unsure whom to trust, particularly among local people, who, she fears, have been influenced by propaganda. In this particularly fraught landscape, the narrator considers the impact of major political problems, such as Obamacare and the promises Trump made to struggling working-class Ohioans. None of these issues feels substantial, but rather like a dawning dread, an irony—in many ways the narrator both fears and mocks the political climate of her home state.

Other thoughts veer toward the strange rhetoric of the Internet, including associations between the Amazon rainforest, and Jeff Bezos, and survivalist blogs. She considers the false realities of stars like Jane Fonda and other celebrity activists, whom she feels a need to emulate. While she considers the Internet realm, she cannot help but ignore the land on which she lives—land stolen from Native Americans, who were run out and killed.

The novel does not come to a real denouement, though the mountain lion, whose thoughts weave in and out, does eventually have an interaction with the narrator’s young daughter. Much like thoughts, memories, and dreams, the novel just ends, unresolved, as the narrator continues her struggle with who and what her life should be, in this fraught political climate.

Lucy Ellmann is an American-born expat novelist living in Edinburg, Scotland. She has written several novels, including Sweet Desserts, Man or Mango? A Lament, and Mimi. Ducks, Newburyport, her most recent novel, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2019. It won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction which innovates the form. Ellmann, married to the writer Todd McEwan, is the daughter of literary critics Richard David Ellmann and Mary Ellmann. She was born in Evanston, Illinois.