Review: The Shipping News

The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is proof that personal taste will vary–dramatically. I have not labored so long on a book I so utterly disliked in years. I have to be missing something, though, because it won a Pulitzer Prize and it’s one of my fiance’s favorites (the latter is the only reason I kept reading at all).

But I just don’t get it.

First, the book offended my editor’s sensibilities. Proulx clearly is well-versed in how to write, and yet she insists on crafting whole paragraphs of sentences without subjects, for example. Were I her editor, I would have thrown my hands up in frustration (as her reader, I still did!) Sentences could not be read on their own but had to be read as part of the whole. It took me several chapters to realize the sentences were more about rhythm than paragraphs–the sentences flow like waves. In. Out. In. Out. Constant little swells to remind you this is a story tied to the ocean. Then at least I understood, even if I didn’t like it.

While reading, it also struck me that, by all the standards agents claimed were essential, The Shipping News should never have been published. The story starts with the very beginning of the character’s life, completely without offering any enticing action, without even a likeable character. The story is vague at best and it’s hard to see the point. There is plenty of symbolism for your 9th grade English teacher to dissect though, so it’s got that, I guess?

And yet it was, so let that be hope to all you aspiring authors out there–you may not only prove them wrong, you may win a Pulitzer for it!

Like I said, I just did not get this book. It is the story of Quoyle, a guy who is a newspaperman because he’s terrible at all other jobs and is mediocre at this one. He is enormously fat and basically just a giant sad and possibly retarded sack. He has two kids who are ill-tempered and is married to Petal, the first woman who would look at him. Petal is a horrible person in every way and openly cheats on Quoyle. She even tries to sell off the kids as sex slaves! The first several chapters make sure you are fully aware of how pathetic a person Quoyle is in every way.

The inciting incident is the completely deus ex machina death of Petal, death of Quoyle’s parents, and firing from his job. Completely untethered, he and his overbearing closeted lesbian uptight aunt take the kids to their ancestral home in Newfoundland.

The biography for Ms. Proulx says she lives at least some of the time in Newfoundland. With that information, you’d think perhaps she likes it there. That’s impossible to tell from this book, which has both made me think about Newfoundland for the first time ever and then promptly made me think I never ever ever want to go there.

According to The Shipping News, Newfoundland:

-is bitterly cold
-is overrun with sexual deviants and child molesters
-is completely boring and devoid of anything to do
-offerings nothing but disgusting-sounding "cuisine"
-is dirt-poor
-is going to find a way to drown you
-hates the rest of British Columbia
-has absolutely nothing to offer

Sounds like a nice place, amiright?

Anyway, so Quoyle moves there, and the rest of the book is him very slowly discovering that the rest of his ancestors are horrible people, falling in love with another sad sack, and gaining some kind of professional capability not because he has a talent for it but because he is another warm body.

I never could answer the “Why should the reader care?” question that is supposed to be so significant in a successful book, so I don’t know why you should read this. Maybe to figure out what the heck I was missing that was supposed to make it enjoyable or at least worth contemplating? The message, as far as I can tell, is that sometimes you are dealt a raw hand and with time and a good bit of magical plot devices, you can work your way all the way to a moderately decent but actually not all that wonderful life. So just settle for the lives you’ve got, you sorry excuses for human beings.

Not my cup of tea, like I said. Can’t account for taste, I guess.

I’m just glad to be done with it.

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