The Book Lucy Ellmann wrote before Ducks, Newburyport

Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Although I know it’s really readable, I am still putting off getting started on Ellman’s Booker shortlisted (and tipped to win?) doorstop of a novel, Ducks, Newburyport. I tell myself it’s because as a Galley Beggar subscriber I have the limited edition black cover and I don’t want to break the spine which would be impossible not to do with a 1000 page book. Really it’s because I’m really intimidated by a book without paragraphs and just eight full stops. However, it just so happened that I have her previous novel, Mimi, on my shelves, so I got stuck into that instead.

Mimi, at its simplest, is a love story — two people who meet, fall in love, lose each other, find each other again and live happily ever after. But it’s set in New York, which usually means a quirky love story, and yes, the blurb suggested this. What it didn’t let on was a) how quirky this novel would be, and b) how hilariously funny large parts of it are. What Ellmann gives us is a experimental comic novel wrapped in a romance’s clothing. It’s not all comic though, there are plot-strands that ends in tragedy which temper the humour and drive the break-up part of the romance.

It begins on Christmas Eve when Harrison Hanafan slips on an icy pavement and sprains his ankle badly. He is rescued by strange woman who conjures up a taxi for him. Hanafan is a plastic surgeon of some renown; he started out on scars, but these days its all rather unnecessary cosmetic surgery. Harrison has recently split up with his girlfriend of several years, Gertrude, and is revelling in his freedom, listing the ways he’s better off without her!

REASON No. 1: She’s like a slug in your bed.

REASON No. 2: Those teeth! It’s like opening a freezer: you’re blinded and chilled at the same time. Nobody ever jokes around with Gertrude for fear of eliciting that smile. […]

REASON NO. 9: Her job as an arts administrator.. Gertrude’s one of those rich women who suddenly decides she needs a job, so she steals on off somebody who really does need a job.

More reasons pop up throughout the novel, as does Gertrude unfortunately, who can’t leave Harrison alone.

Meanwhile on New Year’s Eve, Harrison finds a stray kitten and takes it home: he calls it Bubbles. By Martin Luther King Day, he notes:

My “CAT FOUND” notices had been up for two weeks now without any response. Bubbles was safely mine. I briefly considered posting some “GIRLFRIEND DUMPED” signs as well, to see if anyone rose to the challenge of taking over Gertrude’s role. But Bubbles had already done that, proving himself a superior companion on almost every front.

When Harrison is invited to give the graduation speech at his alma mater, he can’t easily turn the school down, but he is terrified of public speaking. He makes an appointment to see a vocal coach, and blow me – she turns out to be the lady who rescued him on Christmas Eve – Mimi! Not only is Mimi a mad but effective tutor, but Harrison finds his life turned upside down by her – he is in love! Mimi brings out the best in Harrison, awakening a sense of idealism in him that had been fading with every unnecessary boob job and also making him a feminist, giving him some radical ideas for sexual education that he christens the ‘Odalisque Revolution’! Never has the path of love been such fun for a man such as he, but Gertrude will intrude to throw a spanner in the works, and tragedy will befall Harrison before any happy ending and that speech can be considered.

Harrison, by rights, ought to have become a pompous bore, a surgeon who is full of himself, but there’s not enough of this in him to make you dislike him, and once he has Bubbles and then Mimi, you begin to love them all. One of those who has helped to keep Harrison on the right side of the tracks is his artist sister Bee, who is currently living in England, making sculptures in Kent. Bee has never quite achieved the critical renown her work deserves, but soldiers on – a tortured artist. As we get to know Harrison, we also meet Bee and see how they were so close as children, surviving the house fire they’re sure their father set – the scars remain though. Bee’s story is the counterpoint to Harrison’s growing happiness.

Stylistically, this is a neatly conceived novel. Each chapter is set on a particular special day in the calendar, from Christmas Eve through to Labor Day. Harrison is a great man for lists, and he shares many with us – especially his ever-growing ‘List of Melancholy Things’. He is a fan of classical music, and quotations from J S Bach’s cello suites precede several chapters; he also adores La Bohème – whose heroine is Mimi appropriately. There are also many quotes from poems and other works dotted throughout the text, plus occasional changes of text style.

Then there is the Appendix and Acknowledgements – 60+ pages! From the recipes for dishes mentioned to the full text of Harrison’s speech and the pamphlet on the ‘Odalisque Revolution’ that he wrote afterwards and many more lists. The lengthy acknowledgements bear careful scrutiny too – else you’d miss the author’s list of ‘Cats that have helped me.’

This is one of the quirkiest novels (and I use that word in a good way) that I’ve read for ages. Witty, argumentative, lyrical and always engaging, this was a novel to savour that me laugh and well up in places. It has also made me very keen to read Ducks, Newburyport (if I can get over my hatred of breaking spines, that is). Loved it. (9/10)

Source: The TBR! Lucy Ellman, Mimi, (Bloomsbury, 2013), 344 pages. BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link.

17 thoughts on “The Book Lucy Ellmann wrote before Ducks, Newburyport

  1. Eric says:

    Great to read about this! I’d really like to read more by Ellmann since I loved Ducks so much.
    I say you should just go for reading Ducks and break the spine! (but I understand your hesitation 😄)

  2. Laura says:

    I love the idea of Ducks but I’m still not sure whether I’ll tackle it! The kind of quirkiness you describe in Mimi doesn’t hugely appeal to me either.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I love that kind of ‘American’ quirkiness. (I use the inverted commas as I think she is English, but lives in US??) It doesn’t crop up in British and European fiction in the same way. I’m definitely not going to ruin my first ltd ed copy of Ducks I think – but I will try to get it from the library.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m nearly through Ellmann’s hilarious Varying Degrees of Hopelessness and it sounds like it’s fairly similar to this in some ways: a satirical romance in quirky style (but set in London at a fictionalized Courtauld — reminding me of David Lodge’s comic campus novels). I would definitely read this one too.

    What I’m waiting for is someone is produce a 200-page (250 max) abridged version of Ducks. THAT I would happily read! And it’s a great idea reserving it from the library. I might do that and just have a bit of a skim prior to the Booker announcement if I can.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Quirky is a word that some people hate – but it so fits this kind of (mainly US) fiction. It was an engaging read though – I sped through the pages.

  4. JacquiWine says:

    My only experience of Ellmann is Man or Mango, which I read several years ago, probably at the time when it came out in p/b. I do recall liking it though, even if I have no recollection of what it was actually about! This does sound fun, almost the modern (or postmodern?) equivalent of a screwball comedy.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head Jacqui! Why didn’t I think of ‘screwball comedy’ to describe this book – perfect, although as I’ve hinted there are some darker moments. I shall definitely keep an eye out for more of her earlier novels.

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