Ruth Thomas's life is enriched by the eccentric islanders she lives with in Elizabeth Gilbert's rewarding debut novel Stern Men. The author describes the trials and tribulations in the lives of lobstermen on a remote island off the coast of Maine as seen through the eyes of Ruth, the young daughter of a "stern man". Daily life is tough and grinding; some sink while others swim. The hothouse atmosphere creates an environment of seeming contradictions in the struggle for survival: jealousy and compassion; love and hate; life and death. Lobstermen fight over every cubic yard of the sea. Every lobster one man catches is a lobster another man has lost. It is a mean business, and it makes for mean men. As humans, after all, we become that which we seek. Life is also suffocatingly dull and limited, especially for someone as feisty and intelligent as Ruth. But an oddball assortment of friends and neighbours help Ruth to reconcile her mixed feelings about island life and to decide her future (and, in turn, her decisions have a rippling impact on everyone). There is the troop of loveable but not-very-bright Pommeroy brothers who live next door; the water-fearing Senator Simon Addams who spends his summers organising searches for an elephant's tusks in the mudflats; and the handsome but uncommunicative Owmey Wishell who begins to capture her heart. "Stern Men" is almost parable-like in its plotting and the writing is solid and so evocative that the sea air blows out from the pages. It is suffused throughout with believable dialogue and gentle humour and contains a wealth of historical and practical information--including timely observations on the behaviour of the lobsters themselves. "Stern Men" is a memorable and unusual novel.