The adventures of Una Spenser who went to sea disguised as a cabin boy. Shipwrecked, she marries one of the survivors, then falls in love with Captain Ahab, a man obsessed with a white whale. She becomes involved in fighting slavery and in women's rights.
“A dart tipped with pleasure and feathered with pain passed through me.”
“How could I … become blind? What trajectory intended for me, determined by me, could include the subtracting of sight from the sense of me?”
“And I thought I would not tell… Though it left me a liar, it left me having placed a higher value on Charlotte’s happiness than on my own clean conscience. But was it not arrogance in me that made me think I knew best in the matter, that my hand at the stopcock had the wisdom to regulate the flow of truth?”
But – that’s it, the one thing I liked – the author’s writing, especially her well-drawn settings of Nantucket and Kentucky. But, four things I disliked:
From the premise, the story of Captain Ahab’s wife, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book. But once commenced, couldn’t wait for it to finish. It was simply ludicrous to think of one character hopping from catastrophe to disparate catastrophe, over and again, as the author has Mrs. Ahab doing.
Nah. Didn’t buy the thoughts or motivations of a one of ‘em.
Obviously much research went in, for the seepage back out at the reader, throughout the book, was nauseating.
The strident diatribes on every cause du jour throughout history. Pacifism, women’s rights, suffrage, gender equality, abolition, feminism, humanism, etc., etc., etc. Just pick one and wrap a story around it; a story true to its times. Don’t keep hitting us over the head with your holier-than-thou club.
Hated it. With a purple passion.
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.
Una, the main character, is so full of herself that I couldn't bring myself to finish this book. I realized about 1/3 of the way into the book that I didn't like Una. I was at least 3/4 of the way through when it dawned on me that I really didn't care what happened to perfect Una and her perfect son, Liberty. I can't help but think that the character is somehow a reflection of the author, and I will avoid her books in the future.
Naslund's weaving of historical characters, such as Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Maria and William Mitchell, into the plot is interesting, but we don't really feel anything for them. They are included to spout more ideas that Una can agree or disagree with.
This is a very long book to slog through for a character who doesn't engage our affections.
In Ahab's Wife, author Sena Jeter Naslund takes that barely-mentioned, never seen character and gives us her whole life. A novel I read in high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, had the same kind of basis (took a minor biblical character and told her life story), and I loved that book wholeheartedly. Which probably set my expectations a little too high, which isn't really fair, but between that and a killer first line, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last", I was really excited to read this book.
As you can probably surmise from the above, I didn't like it quite as much as I was hoping. Una Spenser is meant to be a one-of-a-kind, irrepressible heroine, but I found her maybe a little too special. She's not just lovely, smart, brave, resilient, passionate, and strong, she's also an object of desire for virtually every man she meets, treated with lavish kindness by almost every person of either gender that she comes across, and unfailingly tolerant and liberal in her attitudes. Which is just not very realistic, and leaves her ringing false as a character. While she certainly has to overcome obstacles (the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck, her treatment at the hands of her first husband, the loss of her first child, the death of her second husband), her only real "flaw" seems to be that she's too impulsive and headstrong, too daring. Which, of course, is presented as not much of a flaw at all.
I wish that Una was a better-drawn and more well-rounded character, because this book could have been quite lovely. Naslund's prose is definitely on the flowery side (if this turns you off, avoid this book at all costs because you will hate it), but I can get down with that if the story is compelling. The first half of the book had much more dramatic tension and excitement than the second half, which dragged in the long sections describing Una standing in the wind and gazing at the stars and/or sea, philosophizing about the world and her place in it. It's quite a lengthy novel at over 650 pages, and editing down some of the aforementioned mind-wandering-while-hair-blows-in-the-wind passages might make Una (and her story as a whole) a little more dynamic and interesting. That being said, I did enjoy reading it and thought it was a pretty good book. Just not quite as good as I wanted it to be.
Having perused several reviews of this book, I question why people repeat that this book is the retelling of Moby Dick from the point of view of his wife. I didn't find this to be the case at all. Una tells the nature of this book in words she overhears by chance:
"...as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life...Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return." (643) If you want to know Captain Ahab's story, rather than Una's, read Moby Dick.
Ahab's Wife is Una Spenser, so named because her mother had read The Fairie Queen before she was born and named her after thusly. As the story opens, her mother is sending her off to live with her aunt and uncle, to protect her from her father, who cannot understand why his daughter does not seem to have more of a spiritual nature; he tries hard, and you get the sense that he loves her deeply, but cannot abide her. So off she goes to the lighthouse to live with her aunt Agatha, her uncle called Torchy and her little cousin Frannie. Things are well with her there. As times move forward, Torchy is putting in a new Fresnel light to increase the power of the lighthouse and along with the light comes two men...Giles and Kit. By this time, Una is 16; she falls for Giles, yet is attracted to Kit. She receives word that her mother is pregnant; she then receives word that her father has killed himself and that her mother will be coming to the lighthouse to have her baby. She is sent to New Bedford to pick up her mother but there receives word that her mother would not be coming after all. So...Una, after giving it a modicum of thought, decides to go to sea. (I am not going to explain why; you have to read it for yourself). She dresses herself as a boy and signs on as a companion to the captain's son on a whaler. However, the whaler meets with tragedy & Una's life changes forever. Without saying how, and without giving away the meat of the book, Una makes it back to Nantucket, and has to undergo further tragedy until she marries Captain Ahab, the captain of the Pequod. The rest is for you to read.
I liked the book; I thought that at times there were parts that were slow and maybe not necessary to the overall understanding of Una's character. The ending you will either find fitting or contrived; I will say only that I found it a piece of poetic justice.
I have heard that there is a movie in the works; I don't know how they can possibly to justice to the novel, but whatever.
I would recommend this book to anyone; you don't need to have read Moby Dick to get it, but you should have at least an inkling of its contents before you read this novel.
Based on only a few lines found in Moby Dick, Ahab's Wife is the story of Una, who at one time was married to the titular and infamous captain. Though, as she states at the very beginning, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." Her story is not an easy one. From her Kentucky home, to an island lighthouse, to life at sea, and ultimately to Nantucket and 'Sconset, she take the reader with her on her journey through life--both physical and spiritual. Not in an entirely linear fashion, but in such a way that a person would looking back on her life, following where her mind leads her.
While not critical to the enjoyment of the book, having at least a basic notion of Moby Dick's plot gives more depth and understanding to Ahab's Wife. (I have only read a massively abridged version of Moby Dick, but it was a favorite of mine when I was younger. I am now inspired to read the classic in its entirety.) Una experiences great tragedy and great joy in the course of her story. It is at times quite unbelievable, but it is fiction--So, despite the detailed an historically accurate atmosphere created, flights of fancy are allowed.
My only major complaint is the shifts in perspective, and the seeming inconsistencies in Una's voice. The point of view is primarily her own, but inexplicably jumps to Kit, Ahab, and even Starbuck. The first time it happened was particularly jarring because it was so unexpected (not quite half-way through the book). It was less so the following times, but it just didn't work that well. Including letters I understand and approve, but completely switching narrators was a little much and unpredictable. And it only served to emphasize the inconsistencies of Una's point of view--occasionally she would address the reader directly as a reader, other times it seemed that she was simply telling her story, and sometime it came across as something else entirely.
Overall, I did enjoy Ahab's Wife. The writing was lyrical and felt very authentic stylistically to the time-period portrayed. Despite inconsistencies and a fair bit of what seemed to be extraneous material, the book was satisfying. (I particularly enjoyed and appreciated who her third husband turned out to be. And Ahab's characterization was marvelous.) I did have to take breaks from it--it is not a book to be rushed through. It does have a few flaws and quirks (but really, what book doesn't?), nevertheless I am glad that I read it.
Experiments in Reading
Rather lengthy and at times verbose, I began reading Naslund's novel wondering if I would be able to finish. But, I quickly became engrossed and deeply committed to her main character, Una. She is married to Captain Ahab during his whaling escapades in Moby Dick, but you need not have read that tomb to appreciate this one. This story carries Una through her full and charming life, both at sea and comfortably settled on shore.
Allow Una the time to you her story.
The end of the story is disappointing. The author pulls in multiple historical figures and threads of various themes which are not central to the story, leading to a feeling of fragmentation.
Thus opens this sweeping novel of the infamous Captain Ahab's wife, Una. Starting in a Kentucky cabin in deepest winter and ending on the windswept eastern edge of Nantucket, the novel takes us through the middle part of the 19th century, using the touchstone of the story of Captain Ahab and his nemesis, Moby Dick, to explore themes of family, abolition, faith and science, suffrage and women's right to self-determination, and revenge. I thoroughly enjoyed Una's story and loved the brief visits by famous souls such as Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller, along with a fascinating cast of truly fictional characters. Sena Jeter Naslund wanders just a wee bit too far down the path of philosophical musings at times but otherwise this is a satisfying ambitious read.
After reading Ahab’s Wife the first time, I tried again, and made it to page 22 this time. Each time I read it, I think about reading Melville again, just to get that one nugget of story that isn’t part of this one.
That said, this is a beautiful book, gorgeously written and completely engaging. The structure is a little hard to manage at first, with a center section of the story at the beginning of the book, the beginning of the story told in the center as a flashback, and then a return to the middle of the story on to the end. But this book has it all- adventure, romance, loss, danger, shipwrecks, cannibalism, insanity, redemption, and a subtle wit.
In addition, the main charcter, Una, was perfect in every way no matter what she did throughout the book. There was no way to elicit a good sense of the type of person she really was because no one is that good. Everyone loved her and she loved everyone. Perfect men fell at her feet (and then went mad). Feh!
The inclusion of so many historical people was very much over the top and completely inane. Maybe the author thought she had but one chance to write a book and she was determined to include everything she could think of. Sad.
But worse were all the anachronisms. Naslund's characters were spouting ultra-feminist 21st-century opinions that were never even thought of in the 19th century. Sure, some women were particularly rebellious and accomplished wondrous things in that century but none so like Una. And the adults who should have at least looked askance at her opinions, never said a word. But in the end, Una ended up as the contented domestic goddess women of those times were meant to be. What happened to her lofty goals? Naslund even had Una using slang from modern times. Again, an intelligent editor could have prevented most of these.
This book reminded me of the historical novels I used to love getting lost in as a teenager, completely oblivious to what fit and what didn't. I've matured.
For me, the essence of Ahab’s Wife focused on two things: nature versus the dogma of religion and the author’s use of color, white, and light versus blackness.
Una, our heroine, leaves her parents home at an early age to live with relatives, relatives who are tied to an island as keepers of the lighthouse. The move is precipitated by the realization that Una’s view of the dogma of religion runs counter to her grim father’s view. Rather than focus on a strict, stern religion of rules and pronouncements, she places her trust in nature. Her father is described in the darkest of terms, literally. Throughout the book, this dark description follows any and all proponents of dogmatic religious beliefs.
Una thrives while with her relatives on the island, as she begins to view the lighthouse – a provider of light and guidance in times of darkness and confusion – as almost God-like. We see her become intensely energized by nature, by things that reflect color and light. Her descriptions of all things natural and colorful are inspiring. She places her faith in nature. Yet, as her experiences accumulate, she is challenged by experiencing unnatural things. (Are they?) This includes her deceptive admittance to a whaler crew by pretending she is a boy. It includes the realization that two young men she has admired and loved from afar, each in their own way, have engaged in sexual acts together. It includes one of those young men forcing her to have anal sex in the same way he was forced. It ultimately includes cannibalism – the most unnatural act, but an act that keeps Una alive in the face of horror at sea.
It is during this horrific experience at sea, an experience fueled by the death of one after another in order for Una, Giles and Kit to have sustenance, that Una realizes black is a color as well.
“It is true. Our boat is more dull than black. Black, after all, is a color and can have its glory and sheen. All around us in the sea and the sky, there is a black glory we do not share.”
That is the first positive description of darkness, as Una experiences one of the darkest experiences imaginable.
A key character in Una’s life is Susan. Susan is black – a color that represents the oppression of dogmatic religious beliefs in many descriptions within this book. Yet, Susan is full of love and giving. She selflessly comes to the aid of Una as she is about to give birth. She provides warmth (literally and figuratively) and encouragement. She even suckles Una in order to assist in producing milk for her ill-fated newborn.
Susan is a Christian. Una is predisposed to think of her father’s limiting view of Christianity, but suddenly realizes that Susan’s Christianity is different. It is filled with softness and love. It is accepting. Susan does not try to force her beliefs on Una, yet she demonstrates her strong beliefs without fail. I can’t find it now, but there is an interesting description of Susan by Una, where Una realizes that Susan has black skin, but it is not uniform in color. It has shades and nuance; it has dark colors, none of which are strictly black.
Una moves from her faith in nature and nature alone, toward a softer view of religion – a more spiritual rather than dogmatic view. She admits to the possibility of a greater plan, to the healing power of forgiveness – even to the presence of a God. It is interesting that David provides the first opportunity for Una to feel forgiven for her cannibalism, as she forgives him for his incest. This marks a turning point for Una – a turning point inspired by this unnaturally short man.
I found the book to be an interesting description of a most difficult life – generically for those who lived at that time and specifically Una’s incredible life. Her spiritual journey involves the coming together of light and dark – whiteness, color, and blackness. In the end she is stronger, but not arrogant. She learns about humility, love, and forgiveness. She remains, in the end, one who resists convention but has a more mature understanding of the important role spirituality plays in her cosmos.