Recommended Reading: The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

photo (5)Cordelia Kings was born into royalty — lobstering royalty, that is. Her father, Woody, is the most respected lobsterman on Loosewood Island, a small community on land claimed by both Canada and the United States. The Kings trace their family history all the way back to Brumfitt Kings, a painter who was the island’s first settler, and it’s a history in which the sea’s bounty goes hand-in-hand with a curse: the death of the first-born son in each generation.

Unlike her two sisters, Cordelia loves lobstering from the moment she sets foot on a boat, and considers herself her father’s rightful heir, in more ways than one. But as Cordelia grows up, Loosewood Island changes too. Threats both within and outside the community surface: people on the island are selling meth, and fisherman from a nearby town are making a power play for Loosewood’s waters.  Cordelia has her own problems, too: a married sternman she can’t help falling for, sisters whose proximity makes tensions rise, and a father she adores who isn’t getting any younger.

As you might have guessed, Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings* was inspired by King Lear, but is not a retelling in the vein of, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Like Lear, however, The Lobster Kings is a family drama with repercussions outside the family unit, and as you can imagine, since Loosewood Island is off the coast of northern Maine, you’re in for a hell of a storm.

Woody Kings may be a patriarch with three daughters, but he’s a cautious man (generally), and a loving father to all his children; his concern for his daughters’ welfare and theirs for him makes The Lobster Kings one of my new favorite father-daughter books. If Woody’s ever mad, it’s with the kind of madness that could overtake any of us in the throes of grief.  He’s feared by his enemies, and very well respected by his fellow lobstermen:

He was the king of the harbor, and his grandfather before, and there would come a day, probably, when I’d take over. We made decisions as a group–to shorten the season, to fish less traps, to stop letting cruise ships dock in the harbor–but anytime we made a decision, big or small, there was always a moment when every man would look to Daddy to see if he agreed. (111)

Cordelia’s love for her father is built on a foundation of respect. Lobstering is immensely difficult work, and after reading this novel, you’ll never look at your lobster roll the same way. Take ropes: “Warp scatters everywhere. Good lobstermen will keep their warps organized, lines coiled and out of the way, where they need to be, and so will the bad lobsterman. Highliners and dubs alike, they keep the ropes neat. The only lobstermen who don’t keep their ropes neat are dead ones” (47).

This kind of realism and awareness of danger permeates The Lobster Kings, even as Cordelia relates present events to analogues in the island’s semi-mythic past. Her narration is interspersed with accounts of Brumfitt Kings’s paintings and the stories behind them. In Cordelia’s view, “Brumfitt was just trying to capture the sea and its power and how little control we have over it. He was just trying to capture the darkness” (161). With lovely, evocative language, Mr. Zentner brings these paintings to brilliant life; you can almost see them hanging in the MFA. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions:

My favorite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead; pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, to Brumfitt Kings. (217)

It’s this kind of painting — in the nebulous space between the feel-good seascapes that grace dentists’ walls and threatening pieces beloved by art critics (Loosewood Island’s second major industry is tourism) — that draws in both Cordelia and her father. This blending of the real and the perhaps-real, the mythic, in swirls of artful description, is what will draw readers into The Lobster Kings.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday: An interview with Alexi Zentner, author of The Lobster Kings.

13 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

  1. Thanks for letting me know about this one- sounds good! I would like to read a good story about lobstering. And I like that it’s father/daughter rather than father/son, which is not common, even now in the 21st century.

    • It’s the perfect book if you want to read about lobstering! And agreed, it’s nice to read a book that (primarily) concerns a father/daughter relationship.

  2. I’m going to have to check this out. I have long enjoyed the books by Elizabeth Ogilvie, most of them set on islands in Maine and about the fishing community. She is maybe not the greatest writer, although she writes a good plot, but I am fascinated by this life.

    • I’ve never heard of Elizabeth Ogilvie — are there any books in particular that you’d recommend?

      The Lobster Kings is fascinating. I hope you’ll like it!

      • She’s light reading from the 1950’s-1980’s and hard to find. Some of her books are sort of romantic suspense novels and others are just stories about life on the island. I think a more recent book and one of her better ones is When the Music Stopped. She has a series about a particular family that was very popular with the people who knew about her, the Bennetts. The fictional island that most of her books are set on is Bennett’s Island. She also has a historical trilogy that begins in Scotland and ends up in New England: Jenny About to Be is the first one. It looks like there are only a few of her books available on Amazon. But Abe’s Books has some of them, cheap! I used to pick them up new years ago and then later at library sales, things like that. They aren’t really really good fiction, but they’re not bad, either.

  3. Reading your blog while sitting in the library is bad news. This one came home with me today.
    (Relatedly, I read A Thousand Acres a million years ago — high school sometime — and didn’t realize at all that it was a Lear retelling.)

    • Hooray! I hope you’ll love it! And as for A Thousand Acres, I don’t think it’s blatantly obvious unless you’ve read Lear, and I don’t think any of our high school teachers assigned it. Hamlet, yes; Lear, no.

      • I finished this a couple weeks ago and I did love it. I had lunch in Lubec on a snail-collecting expedition a few years ago and thought that those islands were simply gorgeous, so it was pretty easy to picture the scenery in the book. I also loved the descriptions of the art and the way the paintings ran through the book.

  4. Pingback: An Interview with Alexi Zentner, Author of The Lobster Kings | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

  5. THE LOBSTER KINGS Borrows Heavily from THE FISHER KING by Hayley Kelsey
    Alexi Zentner’s second novel (May 27), set on fictional Loosewood Island straddling Maine and Canada, revolves around a 300-year-old lobsterman’s family named Kings: Father Woody, eldest daughter Cordelia, and sisters Rena and Carly. Descendants of painter Brumfitt, who, lore has it, married a mermaid, they inherit a family curse that claims the lives of each generation’s first-born son as when nine-year-old Scotty is swept overboard. Guilty over her rivalry with Scotty, Cordelia resolves to fill his shoes as captain and lobsterman. She takes charge when nearby James Harbor lobstermen start poaching the Kings’s waters and drug smuggling to addict the island’s inhabitants. Tough Woody fights back, but at 57 and ill, he only has so much fight left, so Cordelia steps in to avenge the family territory, cutting the enemy’s lobster traplines and discovering a dismembered corpse, which culminates in a piratical shoot-out.
    The author reprises the strongly mythic quality of his first novel in the descriptions of ancestor Brumfitt’s paintings that are interspersed with present-day chapters. But the use of myth here is heavy-handed, clunky, and fails to add dimension to the characters’ history or the plot or to resonate in any way. Allusions to Cordelia’s dalliance with an African-American and to Carly’s lesbian partner are painfully obvious set points designed to give the novel “Politically Correct” elements intended to appeal to contemporary readers.
    The novel reflects a paucity of imagination and felt emotion at every turn: the characters lack complexity and their relationships are based on minor squabbles, which only further erodes any dimensionality. If their fishing rights (hence, livelihoods) are being encroached on, they seem petty squabbling over jewelry instead of strategizing how to get rid of vandals and meth dealers.
    The prose is not the least bit evocative, and there’s so little description woven into the scenes that they “float,” leaving the reader confused as to where and when they’re taking place. Because of the dichotomy between the first-person narrator’s educated voice and the narrative voice, which makes liberal use of slang and comes across as folksy but not intimate, Cordelia’s voice is simply not believable.
    Presumably the plot revolves around the threats of off-islanders encroaching on island waters and dealing meth, but the author never renders a scene that makes them real to the reader, nor does he provide any evidence that they are, in fact, threats, such as by lost revenue or drug-addled adolescents, so nothing is actually at stake in the novel. Author fails to lay the groundwork for or build to crisis events and instead springs them on the reader so they occur out of a vacuum, then handily dispenses with them in a truncated narrative so they don’t advance the plot, build suspense, or add character depth. The scenes are violent, but not climactic. One incident merely follows another with no build-up to them, no rendering of conflict, and no repercussions from them. At each opportunity, he robs the reader of the chance to actually experience the story and characters.
    The author makes a play for “Literary Greatness” by tying the novel to KING LEAR, but it falls flat largely because his characters and plot are so wide of the Lear theme. Instead, the novel seems to borrow heavily from THE FISHER KING, by Hayley Kelsey, published in 2011. In fact, the similarities, both large and small, are striking: The title, family surname, plot points, characters, sibling rivalry, character development, setting, theme, and literary allusions.
    But the richly imagined THE FISHER KING is the infinitely better novel. Not only does it ambitiously address such big themes as overfishing in an era of global trade, who’s responsible for a commons in a free market economy, the competing interests of stewardship v. inheritance, and what connotes possession by posing such questions as who “owns” the sea: the public or watermen who work it and know it best? But the author makes the political achingly personal in the deeply felt and generously evoked very real lives of characters trapped by circumstances (sometimes of their own making) as pressure from a punishing summer drought mounts on an island community and a family to pit brother against brother, and father against son while the fate of the precarious watershed waits. The Fisher King
    In compliance with FTC Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, the reviewer received an ARC free from the publisher unconditionally based on positive or negative review. The opinions expressed are his own.

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