Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Ruth returns to her Maine island home, where neighbouring lobster fishermen have fought for generations. I didn't enjoy this slow-moving offering from respected American writer and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 304 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978 0 7475 9824 4

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I'd not heard of Elizabeth Gilbert before. What attracted me to review this book was the promise of 'two remote islands off the coast of Maine' and 'Ruth … helps work the lobster boats'. A sailing addict, I adore any salty tale, fact or fiction, especially if an island or two is involved.

It was only after writing my review that I glanced at the end pages. Judging by the copious quotes in her praise, Elizabeth Gilbert is a respected journalist, talented short story writer and author of a best-selling travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, not to mention being voted one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine.

Now, I'd written of Stern Men: 'tedious dialogue which doesn't forward the plot'; a 'sullen heroine largely lacking an inner life'; 'nil points for sensory detail of landscape or atmosphere'; and 'would have been better written from the viewpoint of a stranger who knows little about boats or islands'. Oh no. Surely the great and the good can't be totally wrong? I decided on a little trawling round the Web to find out why I was so far off course.

According to Elizabeth Gilbert's website, Stern Men was her first novel, published in the US in 2000 shortly after her acclaimed short story collection, 'Pilgrims'. A writer by vocation, she spent the previous decade observing people and learning her craft, netting 'a massive pile of rejection notes'. Ms Gilbert tells us that she sent off numerous submissions, despite being certain of rejection. She encourages other writers to follow her example, on the grounds that the professionals should decide whether an offering will sink or swim.

Jane Austen, likened to Gilbert on the back cover, took a different view. At the same age as Ms Gilbert in 2000, Jane Austen was still working on 'Lady Susan'. Apparently she made a fair copy but decided not to pursue publication. Yes, even the great Austen wrote a novel that isn't perfect. The risk of reading a not-so-wonderful early work first, is that it may dampen the reader's interest in future books.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. Fortunately, we don't all have the same tastes and you may well respond differently. Ms Gilbert likely has a following in the UK who will be interested in this story of inter-island hostilities.

P.S. There is a great sex scene: the writing leaps from the pages ... do maiden voyages usually venture into such uncharted waters?

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

As well as the two Elizabeth Gilbert titles mentioned in the review, The Last American Man is due out in August 2009. On the island tack, I commend to you my favourite East Coast love story, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kydd, even though it hasn't been reviewed by The Bookbag. This book ticks all my boxes for characters, story, evocation of landscape and the atmosphere of island life. On different lines, but set on a Channel Island in wartime, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer was well received on this site. The Bookbag reviewers also enjoyed Alligator by Lisa Moore, set in Newfoundland, and Joanne Harris' Coastliners, on two French islands.

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Buy Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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