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“Ahab’s Wife” is true to its title, telling the story of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab, the Melville character whose obsession with a great white whale leads to his death. But the book refuses to be a tale of a 19th century woman who merely waits on the widow’s walk for her adventurous hubby to come home.
From the opening line—”Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last”—you will know that you are in the hands of a master storyteller and in the company of a fascinating woman hero. Inspired by a brief passage in Moby-Dick, Sena Jeter Naslund has created an enthralling and compellingly readable saga, spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. At once a family drama, a romantic adventure, and a portrait of a real and loving marriage, Ahab’s Wife gives new perspective on the American experience.CNN.com/books / Amazon
The first thing you have to know about this book is that is it long. Really long. 666 pages long. I kid you not.
Why THIS book?
Book club. Packed by someone who read it on her kindle and had, I don’t think, no idea whow long it actually is.
It reads like a memoir. Set in the first half of the 19th century (that’s the early 1800s for those of you who have trouble remembering such designations), this is the very long and very eclectic story of Una. Beyond the normal recountings of adventures, conversations with famous people, and all the normal dramas that make up a woman’s life (multiple marriages and pregnancies, the loss of loved ones, etc), this is a deep story about self-discovery, self-determination, and self-love.
Did you read Moby Dick? Hawthrone? Do you remember the flowery language from your American Lit class in high school or college? Remember how people would not write “We sat outside and had breakfast” but instead “Perched upon chairs set aside for this purpose, we shared a repast of bread and cheese in quiet contemplation while Helios slowly pulled the fiery orb from its horizon cradle until hovering over the cottonwood trees it lent its golden light upon the grass and we watched the meager shade upon the lawn shrink and recede to its natural place on the edges of the scene.” (Note: this is -obviously- not a line from the book, I wrote this just now to prove a point.)
If that doesn’t scare you off and the page count doesn’t diminish your desire, then brava! This is probably a book you will enjoy.
Here’s the thing with flowery language. Sometimes it can be hard to muddle through. Sometimes you must know something akin to what the author knows in order to parse it. (in the example above, if you didn’t catch my clumsy reference to the sun via Helios, you might be confused.) Disclosure: I love flowery language I understand. I hate it when I don’t “get it” and have to go look something up. Your mileage will totally vary on this point as many of the Greek and Biblical allusions are not as rampant in the common vernacular. If, however, you either like learning new allusions or remember a fair bit of your bygone literature classes… (or you just don’t mind if some of the verbiage and metaphor floats above your comprehension)… You will probably really like this book.
But now I am skipping to the end, let me backtrack a bit.
More on the writing style: The book is mostly written in the first-person perspective. Una is a fascinating narrator who seems to remember a lot of details from even her distant past. She is also very candid in that she is writing her memoir and slightly less up front that she is relying on her memory for circumstances. And then… then there are a few chapters that are from the point of view of other side characters. These chapters don’t show up until more than a quarter through the book which makes them jarring and actually a bit unpleasant. Una’s narration, while maybe not 100% reliable is soothing and easy to follow. Not so with these others. And then, as if that breach in etiquette is not enough, there are whole chapters given over to the letters to and from Una. Now, I know this is a narrative device often used in memoirs and in older writings… but again, they entered our tale so late in the game, that it felt like cheating. Also, side note, italics are hard to read!
I really wish we had stayed in Una’s head as the story progresses because honestly, it was Una, more than anything else, that kept me reading.
The plot is… a lot. It would have to be. There are over 650 pages to fill up. In this area, the book does not disappoint. Yes, there were sections that I found moved slower than others… but many of the anecdotes and adventures, conversations, daily life moments, and spiritual discussions were highly enjoyable. Jeter Naslund did a huge service to the reader by dropping a few tantalizing hints early on that kept us interested up until the very end.
The pacing was pretty good… again I felt that a few of the chapters given over to letters or to Una’s wandering thoughts and spiritual musings were maybe a bit overdone, but for the most part, I was engaged and interested all the way up to the end.
I can’t call out specifics due to my stance on spoilers, but I can tell you that there is a bit of plot for everyone… except maybe the speculative fiction lovers out there. There is romance, high adventure, the lively discourse of ideas, sadness, hope, etc.
Let’s start with the bad: Ahab.
Now, Jeter Naslund does a pretty good job of Ahab… especially the voice and his Quaker way of talking (warning for flashbacks to Moby Dick to be sure) and it can be hard to emulate and animate such a famous fictional character as Ahab. Inserting him into a totally different story is a feat. That’s not bad. The bad is the title.
“Ahab’s Wife” “Ahab’s WIFE?” “AHAB?” Pardon my language here but What The Fudgemaker… the dude doesn’t even show up in any sort of meaningful way until way, WAY, into the book and (spoiler warning for Moby Dick….) He isn’t there at the end either. F.F.S. Una has a big complicated life both before and after him and it just pisses off my feminist heart that this book was not just called The Star-Gazer to begin with. I hate, HATE, that this proto-feminist book which is literally all about a woman claiming herself, learning about herself, and bucking convention in some pretty badass sort of #BossBitch ways gets relegated to being some dude’s wife. It galls me.
Why, in all that is holy, call it Ahab’s Wife and not just The Star-Gazer?
Is it because there is already a book by that name? I mean… There is… but it isn’t really going to ever get confused with this book… The Star Gazer by Zsolt Harsanyi (1939) That book portrayed with graphic detail how the Catholic Church tried to hide the truth about the universe and how the earth is not the center of it. I mean… there is some overlap here, but really?
Even the NY Times says this: ”Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” begins Naslund’s heroine, Una Spenser, as she lies on her back on a Nantucket beach after Ahab’s death, watching the clouds go by. One of them, she thinks, looks a bit like Ahab’s face, a face that she always recalls as ”mild” if somewhat excitable. She waves goodbye. With one dreamy, casual gesture, Una thus waves aside a century’s worth of canonization and goes on to talk about what’s really on her mind: her mother. Over the course of the next 666 pages, Una unscrolls her life story, a long and winding tale in which Ahab is one player among many, and not necessarily the most important one.”
I have spent too long trying to figure this out. I still have no idea why the subtitle is there and it irks me to my inner core.
Here is the good. Una is a wonderful character in a world full of other wonderful characters. Most of the people are good people. There are a few villains but they are seen as such and dealt with accordingly…. And this book is not about them. I want to hang out with Una and her friends… her very famous important friends! Now… last week I complained a bit about the over-diversity of Honey Girl. In this book, there is also a lot of diversity and I do wonder if Jeter Naslund had a checklist… but at least this time because there were so many pages, towns, people, things, adventures, it felt more authentic that, over the course of Una’s long and varied life, she would encounter everything from a runaway slave to a few happily coupled gay men, from religious zealots to feminists and suffragettes and abolitionists and everything in between.
Yes. There are some laugh-out-loud moments. There are exciting incidents that compelled me to keep reading even after my eyes begged for rest. There is a whole passage between Una and a famous American novelist that centers on the writing of one descriptive sentence that I swear is included as a way to poke fun at all the English teachers and English majors everywhere. (The very placement of the words, the way they are spelled, the symbolism of the structure of the sentence… it must MEAN something!)
Would I recommend it?
I really liked it and I found it worth my time. Others might get frustrated with the language and the very long (although never complicated) plot. There are elements of tragedy woven throughout that do not disappear as we enter the final chapters and this is definitely a book that warrants pondering and contemplation rather than a flippant thumbs up or down. An ambitious story about a remarkable heroine told in the language and style of earlier American “classic” literature that challenges our assumptions while carving out a well-deserved place in the modern canon of feminist and historical literature. I just wish it has been granted the freedom of its subtitle.
Note: As someone close to me pointed out, perhaps the title was just a way to make sure you understood from the get-go what sort of book it was going to be. That might be the case… But wait! Two things: Thing One: More than two people* saw me reading this book and assumed from the title alone that it was about Moby Dick the whale, like… from the whale’s perspective… Maybe I need different friends.
*It was 3. Three different people were like “Oh, so it’s about Moby Dick? Or whaling or something?” AGH!
Thing Two: If the title is indeed Ahab’s Wife in order to piggyback on the name recognition of Ahad (and Moby Dick) in order for this book to get published or picked up by a reader… how freaking ironic and sad. Again, this is a feminist book that -I think- is vatly superior to Moby Dick. /grumble
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?