Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ahab's Wife - Sena Jeter Naslund

Title: Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
Country: America
Year: 1999
Rating: B+
Pages: 668 pgs.

First sentence: Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.

With this first sentence, Sena Jeter Naslund sets the scene for a historical novel that brings the female perspective to an American classic, Moby Dick. Through the eyes of Una, we are given a glimpse into mid-19th century America, a time when abolition was beginning to gain momentum, whaling was an acceptable trade, and transcendentalism abounded (at least in Una's realm).

Although slow to start, I ultimately enjoyed this epic novel. The first 100 pages or so dragged as you first meet Una as a young girl living in the Kentucky frontier. Raised by a liberal, Quaker mother, and a fundamentalist Christian father, somehow Una grows up agnostic. Her religious differences with her father finally lead her parents to send her to New England, where her Aunt and Uncle maintain a lighthouse on a small island. It is here that the story picks up in its momentum. We follow Una as she experiences the world, partaking in her own adventures, which eventually lead her to Captain Ahab and beyond. The story could be described as adventure, but overall it is a romantic novel. A very well-written one.

Ahab's Wife, as attested by numerous reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, certainly has its flaws. I do not believe that Naslund set out to write a masterpiece, as so many reviewers cite her for failing in this goal. Una herself sometimes does come across as flat and unchanging, and although I really liked her, I found myself drawn more to the outlying characters (Mrs Maynard, Aunt Agatha, Uncle Torchy, Mary Starbuck and the Judge were some of my favorites). Although I felt that overall it worked quite well, famous individuals of the time do make somewhat random appearances--the most glaringly contrived is that of Una's run-in with Henry David Thoreau.

But you know what? I don't care. Simply for the fact that I enjoyed reading this book. It kept me up at nights, a feat which usually only occurs with mysteries and other suspenseful books. I felt the story was truly entertaining. And isn't that what reading for fun is all about? Ahab's Wife is simply a good, well-written story. I initially picked up this book since Naslund will be at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in September. I definitely look forward to hearing her speak and delving into her latest novel, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette.

A runaway slave Wanted poster on a steamboat in Kentucky (Una's mother tore it down):

Large, strong, coal-black $800 male Shifty eyed,
bit-broke teeth on left
Clover-leaf brand left shoulder
Dangerous and Desperate
$50 for information
$500 for return to Sweet Clover Farm
A personal revelation:
Since my time on the Sussex, I have ever feared the weathervane in me. Sometimes I point toward Independence, isolation. Sometimes I rotate--my back to Independence--and I need and want my friends, my family, with a force like a gale. I have in me a spinnaker sail that finds the breeze and leads all my sails in that direction. (p.190)
An interesting cure for that dreaded female 'disease', hysteria:
And very soon I was eating buttered toast, followed by bacon, followed by fish, followed by oatmeal--all to ward off hysteria. And it worked very well. After a while, the judge took up business again.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I read this awhile back and while I didn't love it at the time, it's lingered with me. It was a good read and I'm always excited to see it touching a chord with others.

Nyssaneala said...

susan - It's surprising sometimes the books that tend to linger in our thoughts!

iliana said...

I have this one on my shelf for a while. I don't know why I haven't picked up it yet. Great review!

Booklogged said...

That quote you added under 'a personal revelation' rings true to me. I am that same way. Sounds like a pretty good book. Nice review, Nyssaneala.

Maggie said...

Like Iliana, I've had this book within eyesight for two years now. Why doesn't it jump into my hands? I think I'm waiting to read it on sea-faring vacation or island retreat. Quick note, this book was an all-state read for Alabama in 2004.

Dewey said...

I have Abundance on my wishlist, but hadn't really heard much about this book. It sounds worth reading.

Nyssaneala said...

dewey - I would recommend it, but the beginning is slow, which can be a downer when the book is over 600 pages!

Nyssaneala said...

iliana - Books can squander away on my bookshelf for years before I read them sometimes!

booklogged - That quote is the one that struck me the most, as well.

maggie - as fair warning, I'm not sure if it's the best book to read on a cruise, or any other multi-day water adventure! An island retreat might be a better reading venue. :)

Jeane said...

Months ago I picked up Ahab's Wife and considered it, but the flyleaf and first few paragraphs just didn't catch my interest. However, your review certainly did. I think it's going back on my TBR list for another go. Sometimes I'm just not in the right mood the first time I try a book...

Flastar said...

I just finished reading AHAB'S WIFE. I stayed up three nights, and finally got through this book. I did enjoy it, but I felt it was a bit wordy, and the author tried to fit to many characters and issues into this girl's life.

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tommyt said...

Great blog post, although I'd like to point out that the man she meets in the Concord woods isn't Thoreau (as I also initially thought) -- it's Nathaniel Hawthorne. The giveaway is the line he has written that they discuss, which is from a Hawthorne story.