Ellmann is the author of six previous novels and the creator of some of contemporary fiction’s most committed curmudgeons. Any one of them could issue the statement drafted by her character Eloise in “Man or Mango?”: “I wish it to be known that I am not pursuing any friendships at the moment because I cannot think of anything to say and I suspect I am bad for people. I am too egotistically involved with my own decay to focus on the troubles and triumphs of others.”
The narrator of “Ducks, Newburyport,” however, is consumed with the troubles and triumphs of others (ineffectually, as she’ll hasten to tell you): her four children and husband, people in Flint, Mich., forced to pay $200 in monthly water bills, families starving in Syria. Coming across a pigeon egg, she considers incubating it in her bra. Her dreams are full of animals she cannot save, people she cannot protect. She is haunted by the death of her mother. “Nobody fixes anything,” she laments, “not faucets, not window frames, not the Ohio River, the fact that sea salt now contains microplastics, the fact that coelacanths die now from eating plastic potato chip bags at the bottom of the ocean, the fact that sometimes I think that people today must be the saddest people ever, because we know we ruined everything, even geraniums probably, the fact that, heavens to Betsy, I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm.”
Does Ellmann stoke or soothe our sense of alarm? Neither; alarm, grief and shame are appropriate emotions at this moment, she suggests, but they are not the only ones. Never mind the mountain lioness subplot, the novel’s most startling feature is the marriage at its center: the narrator’s life with her husband, their steadiness and mutual enchantment, their kindness to each other. In literature, sometimes nothing seems so extraordinary as ordinary happiness. There are also moving passages about the strangeness and surprising solidarity of aging: “I think middle-aged women aren’t completely alone in the world” because “we look at each other kindly, just to see how we’re all faring, or fading, the fact that I’m fading fast, especially now.”
There is a certain kind of reader (I am this kind of reader) who will think: Yes, hooray, but couldn’t this have been accomplished in half the length, at a respectably brawny 500 pages? Is the length justified?
“I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period,” William Faulkner once wrote to Malcolm Cowley. “I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead.” The capaciousness of the book allows Ellmann to stretch and tell the story of one family on a canvas that stretches back to the bloody days of Western expansion, but its real value feels deeper — it demands the very attentiveness, the care, that it enshrines.