The Shipping News is a toughie to describe because it’s kind of a slow-read. Proulx’s writing style is all about being short and brief – sentences are choppy and dialogue is sparse – so it seems like nothing really happens. But then when you think back on all that happened in the book, you’re like, “holy shit, a lot of crazy stuff happened.” Take what you will from that description, but this slow burner was worth the slog.
Quoyle is our main character…and he’s pretty awkward. He’s physically massive, lacking in any natural talents, insecure about his looks, and a lonely guy. Despite his general dopiness, he manages to get a job working for his local newspaper in upstate New York. He tries hard at the new job but he’s just not very good at it. Because he’s not really that good at anything.
When Quoyle lands a hot wife named Petal, it’s a dream come true. She’s spunky and beautiful and he can’t believe she agreed to marry him and Quoyle is completely whipped. The only problem is – surprise, surprise – Petal is the worst human being. She is abusive, unfaithful, and bears two children, whom she, for all intents and purposes, hates. Petal disappears for days at a time without warning to hang out with her sidepiece BFs. And the whole time Quoyle just ignores it all because he loves being a dad and he’s also still in love with the lady. Then Petal crosses the line: She tries to sell their daughters to sex traffickers for some extra cash. Literally the worst human being.
So it’s not that upsetting for the reader when Petal abruptly dies in a car crash (with one of said sidepiece BFs). Of course, Quoyle is completely distraught because not only has he lost his kids to the sex traffickers, but he’s lost the woman he inexplicably loves. Thank goodness the police discover and return the daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to Quoyle safe and sound. Phew.
Then Quoyle’s secretly badass aunt, Agnis, convinces him to move with her to Canada, where their family is from. They have a house up there, passed down through the generations, and it seems like the best place to move forward. They uproot their NY lives and move to the family’s empty oceanfront fixer-upper that is is literally perched on a rock.
And so begins the rest of Quoyle’s life in Killick-Claw, a shipping town in Newfoundland. Without Petal around, he gets to focus on being a dad and it turns out to be something he’s really, really good at. He grows closer to Agnis, who he’d never known very well. He begins to unravel the dark history of his family. And he starts to look forward, to understand the role he could play in his new Canadian world, to have hope, to relearn the meaning of love.
While it was sometimes hard to get through without nodding off to sleep, I eventually grew to really like this book. The characters were quirky and frustrating yet lovable and authentic. I probably wouldn’t read it again, but it was worth the time spent the first time around.
Book: The Shipping News
Author: E. Annie Proulx
Type: Authentic novel about an awkward single dad.
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