“Stern Men: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read this book because Gilbert’s Signature of All Things was such a delight. Stern Men was another truly great read. For starters, there’s the title pun – stern as in the back of a boat, stern as in taciturn and disapproving. And the stern man is number two on a boat, after the captain. Often the secondary characters in this book are unexpectedly interesting and important. That’s a lot to pack into a short title!

A quick plot synopsis would be: Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.

Stern Men takes place off the coast of Maine, on a pair of imaginary islands occupied by lobstermen, their families and a few odd hangers on. In the past, the granite industry had temporarily brought prosperity and “summer people” to the islands. The ancient heir to that industry connives and manipulates to bring the island communities into modern times and save them from economic ruin, but we don’t learn this until the very end of the book.

The setting dominates Stern Men more than is the case in Signature of All Things.

The story is told from the from the point of view of Ruth Thomas, who returns to her island home after attending an exclusive boarding school in Delaware. Ruth is the granddaughter of an orphan adopted by the granite magnate’s family. She does not “belong” anywhere, but chooses island life. The time frame is the 1960s and 1970s. Most of what happens in the US bypasses the isolated islands. There is ONE reference to marijuana and a passing allusion to the Viet Nam war.

I was, of course, reminded of Linda Greenlaw, who wrote three nonfiction books about fishing off the coast of Maine before trying her hand at fiction with the murder mystery Slipknot. I liked Greenlaw’s lively and amusing nonfiction, but Slipknot lacked depth. I think she was trying to emulate Janet Evanovich. AND she was pushing a message. I’m getting tired of fiction with a message. Greenlaw’s message is explicated in an “Author’s Note” at the very end of the book. Please! Tell me a story or send me a message – but don’t do both!

There is, in fact, a message in Stern Men, but it’s tucked into a rant by a minor character, the stiff necked local pastor, who understands too well what damage greed and stubbornness can do to a community. He’s one of the minor characters that makes me wish for MORE – another chapter, another book, more of this wonderful fictional world Gilbert has created.

Stern Men qualifies as literary fiction, a term I still don’t entirely understand, but from me it is a high compliment, like saying that something may stand the test of time.

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