Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer

Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
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Jun 19, 11

bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, literary-fiction, novels, romance, ultimate-reading-list
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List
Recommended for: Those Who Love Novels of Ideas
Read from June 17 to 18, 2011, read count: 1

This is basically Moby Dick fan fiction, with much of fan fiction's highest pleasures and one of it's most common problems. There are only a few paragraphs in Melville's Moby Dick mentioning Captain Ahab's unnamed young wife, a "sweet, resigned girl" he married at fifty, spent only one night in bed with, and by whom he had a son. Naslund takes that nail paring worth of information and from it fashions a flesh and blood woman, Una Spenser of Kentucky.

And therein lies my major issue: Una. Some might feel Una has too modern a sensibility, about religion, about whaling. But I thought it was appropriate (and Una's struggle with belief spoke to me). Melville himself is often irreverent about religion. (See, for instance, Ismael's thoughts and remarks about Queequeg) and rather sarcastic and ironic in tone about whaling, even suggesting at one point it's akin to cannibalism. My problem with Una is that she's "Mary Sue," a term coined regarding fan fiction to refer to an original character who is an idealized projection of the author, usually improbably adored by all and with superpowers. I'm afraid Una comes far too close to that for comfort. So many characters fall for her, and famous historical figures are associated with her. Una is a bosom friend of Margaret Fuller. Nathaniel Hawthorne considers Una remarkable among women after talking with her for a few minutes. Her cousin works for Frederick Douglas and Una recognizes Henry James' genius after talking with him briefly as a child. Another problem with Una is how she and Ahab see each other as another self. It doesn't fit though. Una is too sane. Even when the author has her break a terrible taboo, she has Una do it in a way that distances her from the crime, and I never really felt what should have been a traumatic incident disturbed or damaged her in a way I found credible. Una's neither a mirror to Ahab in his monomania nor does she strike me as a "sweet, resigned girl" as Ahab's wife is described by Peleg in Moby Dick.

Yet, I did love a lot about this book. I read Moby Dick just before I read Ahab's Wife, and if you can make yourself read what is admittedly at times a tedious (but rich) book first, I think you'd find it rewarding to do so before reading this one. The books share common characters such as Ahab, Starbuck, Flask, Pip, Daggoo, Tashtego, Captains Peleg and Bildad, Mrs Hussey, Ismael; places like The Spouter-Inn and Try Pots Tavern, phrases, images and parallel incidents like the one with the lightning rod, and in the last third of the book the last voyage of the Pequod is told through letters and news from the returning ships she encountered. Even though I think it can stand alone, I think you'll enjoy this book more if you can recognize the wealth of allusions. Like Moby Dick or, the Whale there's an alternate title, The Stargazer, there's a similar number of chapters in similar typeset (157 to Moby Dick's 135) This book is also first person, from Una's point of view, but with some chapters from other points of views like Ahab's, and, like Moby Dick, even snatches in stage play format, giving a flavor of the eccentric source. However, I found Ahab's Wife more enjoyable than Moby Dick and better crafted in a structural sense. Yes, I know that's blasphemous, and I'm not arguing this book is a profound deathless classic like Moby Dick, which was so very original. But at least there aren't endless digressions and infodump with a host of chapters devoted to the sperm whale's tail, skull, skin, penis, etc. Instead we have a smart, courageous heroine and more action and adventure than one might expect.

And I quite like Naslund's lyrical prose style. Not purple I think--not when put next to Melville's prose which I thought it complimented. I'd certainly be interested in reading more of Naslund after this, and am curious if her style will change to match different material. For me this works as a very enjoyable, erudite work of historical and literary fiction and coming of age story, rich in its play of ideas, and by the end of Ahab's Wife I better understood and appreciated Moby Dick because of reading it.
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