Elizabeth Gilbert is most famous for her memoir writing, especially Eat, Pray, Love. However, she began writing fiction, and Stern Men (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) was her first novel. I drag this off my book shelf to re-read every few years because not only is the female protagonist, Ruth Thomas, exactly the smart, unconventional and determined character described on the book jacket, but also a woman with whom I feel some kinship.
There are so many books, articles and kitchen-table or restaurant booth conversations about how painful first sexual encounters are and how women never truly enjoy sex. It is refreshing to find a book wherein a woman not only likes sex, she loves it, even the first time. When I found Gilbert’s book so many years ago, I wanted to read it because it was set in New England and the main character was a described as an intrepid woman. The book jacket described it as a tale about a woman who wanted to work lobster boats. Having read Linda Greenlaw’s, The Hungry Ocean, the year before Stern Men was published, I thought a fictionalized account would be interesting.
Stern Men is set on two small islands off the coast of Maine where the backdrop is more a classic star-crossed lovers tale the likes of which we’ve been reading for four hundred years in various incarnations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There are the standard characters, too, from stories like It’s a Wonderful Life, in the form of the ornery, wealthy, old man (Mr. Ellis) who tries to control the islands like the Henry Potter character of Bedford Falls in Capra’s film. These somewhat cliché personalities, coupled with the cliché lobsterman personas might make one believe this story has been told far too many times, and a new setting isn’t enough to keep one’s attention.
That would all be true except for the refreshing character of Ruth Thomas. The way Gilbert writes the love scene between Owney Wishnell (our stand-in for Romeo) and Ruth is unique. We experience it through the mind of Ruth, who is honest and pragmatic, even in such a situation as first-time sex. I smile every time I read the scene. I love how Gilbert allows Ruth to want Owney, and not at all fear sex itself. Their first sex is not a fumbling, bumbling, painful ordeal. Rather, it is exactly what first sex should be: the flowering (versus de-flowering) of a woman in her body as a sexual being. Ruth and Owney explore one another without inhibition of any kind. And, as if the presence of a sex-positive, woman-positive story wasn’t enough, by the end of the book, Ruth has found a way to balance love, motherhood, marriage and work and has brought together a community once divided.
When I was young, I wrote a poem about this topic. I’ve lost it in many moves and changing computers over the years. It was about not “losing” anything but rather gaining new knowledge about myself when I first had sex. Women need stories that encourage and support healthy sexuality, and strong female personalities. Stern Men is just such a tale.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.