As a kid growing up in Maine, there came a day early on in the summer each year when the couch on our back porch beckoned just so, and I’d stretch out to read. At last, it was warm enough to sit outside—a triumph after having survived the winter. The laziness the couch invited was so luxurious; I forgot how arduous reading normally felt. I was a slow reader (still am), but something about that long-anticipated shock of Vitamin D must have fueled me: on this day I spontaneously became a speed reader. By noon I would have made it a third of the way through my book, and by then I knew I wasn’t going anywhere until it was done. By sundown I’d have licked it cover-to-cover, heralding in the season ahead of languorous summer reading.
To my delight, this happened all over again when I picked up Alexi Zentner’s new novel The Lobster Kings. From my loveseat in Brooklyn, I was immediately transported to Loosewood Island off Maine where we meet Cordelia Kings as she is sitting on the dock at night, chased out of her house by a soupy heat. Off in the distance, thunder and lightening signal an impending storm. The Kings family has been fishing the waters off Loosewood Island for some three hundred years, going back to Cordelia’s ancestor Brumfitt Kings, who it is said only sailed halfway to the Island from Ireland, for giant lobsters paved a path for him to walk—as he did along their backs—the rest of the way. In every part of his being, Brumfitt was a man of the sea. He lived just as much to lobster the waters as he did to paint them, and Cordelia, like her daddy before her, has inherited the legacy of his life’s work. As they carry on the tradition of the Kings in their respective boats, the Queen Jane and the Kings’ Ransom, they navigate territory that is rife with modern problems—namely a drug trade that has infected the mainland and made for greedy lobstermen.
Immediately, the tension that works so well throughout the novel is established: just like the waxing and waning of the tides that dictate life on the water, Zentner teases out a back and forth in the narrative that makes for an endlessly salacious read. “Daddy likes to say that you can find both the history and the future of the Kings family in Brumfitt’s paintings. You just have to know where to look,” he writes at one point. In one chapter we meditate on the meaning of the myths painted by Brumfitt; in the next, we see the present day Kings family risk, grip and escalate to unpredictable extremes to hold onto the territory that is rightly theirs. As they fight—against the ruthless lobstermen from James Harbor, the weather, physical limitations—Shakespeare’s adage, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” resonates in the action on every page. No sooner is one obstacle dealt with than the next threat seems just around the edge of the island.
Plagued by a curse, the Kings know all too well that the sea will give their family life, but it will just as easily take it away. By the time she is lobstering herself, Cordelia has already weathered the loss of kin, and understands all too well just how fragile life is. Still, she makes no qualms about taking on the demanding work at hand. She couldn’t not do it. Despite her ability, she remains defensive about the fact that she’s a woman following in her father’s footsteps. Lobstering is a relationship between a captain and the sea, but Zentner guides the reader through Cordelia’s transformation from ruthless independence to being part of a community. At turns, she is just as tough as the men on the island; at others, we see her softer side as she succumbs to a love interest that will ultimately support her enough to wear the Kings’ crown herself . Like any love interest, the one Zentner constructs offers a welcome shelter from the storm.
A King Lear adaptation to great affect, The Lobster Kings is a family drama, replete with jealous sisters, a strong (though aging) father figure, ancestral legacy, and the unknown future. Sure you could make the drive up to Maine from the city, or you could just flop out on your favorite recliner for summer reading, and let Zentner take you along for the journey.