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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What I'm Reading: Ahab's Wife

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel (P.S.)It is embarrassing how far behind I have gotten on my reviews.  So no excuses, just putting my nose to the grindstone and going back to tackle a book I read in early August,  Ahab's Wife or, the Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund. Ahab's Wife was a book I actually owned in paperback and kept meaning to read, I just never got around to it.  After attending one of our Book Lover's Club meetings and hearing someone talk about how much they loved this book, I moved it from the bottom of the to-read pile right to the top.

I have to say I was also influenced by that fact that the book dovetailed nicely with my planned vacation.  Remember back here when I read the Lonely Planet travel guide on my trip to Nova Scotia?  And, with the whaling, light house and sea faring details in Ahab's Wife (all which were a part of that vacation) and the novel's setting during the 1800s in New England (which is a favorite of mine) and my personal obsession with Moby Dick, really what was I waiting for.  I threw this 600+ paged paperback into my suitcase and started reading it as my plane made its way toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Here is the setup.  The book is narrated by Una and it is her life story.  We know from the start that Ahab was not her first husband nor her last.  So what we have is the fictional memoir of the wife of a famous fictional character.  This is a huge part of the appeal of this novel.  In fact, many readers (myself included) love this type of "classics revisited" story which gives a new perspective on a popular fictional character or story.  Think about the cottage industry of Jane Austen inspired fiction alone.

Although at least a surface understanding of the plot of Moby Dick is helpful here, this really is a great example of historical fiction about a woman's life.  Una moves in the educated circles of 19th Century New England. Talk of the transcendentalists (Like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller), life on whaling ships, the abolitionist movement, and industrialization fill this novel.  For me, this happens to be my favorite time period to read about, so I loved it.  But any reader who likes an authentic historical setting and an interesting protagonist will enjoy this book.

Una's childhood living with her uncle, a lighthouse keeper, and his family, her adventures (dressed in drag) on a whaling ship, her romances, her friendships, and her intellectual pursuits, fill this novel.  It is written in first person, with Una talking to us, the readers.  These are her confessional memoirs.  Her life is not scandalous, but it is eventful and she crosses paths with many famous people, both real and fictional. Una is a full and vibrant narrator with a historically accurate personality. Each person she encounters, is well fleshed out also.  Naslund puts character first here.

Due to the level of detail, the high page count, and the fact that it is the complete story of most of Una's life, this is a leisurely paced book.  This is not a novel to race through.  You are experiencing Una's life as she chooses to unfold it for the reader.  The leisurely pace is also underscored by the language.  There are beautiful descriptions and passages here.  There are whole sections you will want to re-read for their sheer beauty.

Overall, the tone of this novel is nostalgic, bittersweet, slightly darker, but realistic.  I say slightly darker because while Una is mostly happy, there is quite a bit of sadness in her life.  While she feels a true love connection with Ahab, we all know before beginning of the book, that his obsession with the white whale will also be his mortal downfall.  That knowledge and sadness does color the entire book. 

I am glad I waited until I had time to immerse myself in Una's world.  I was able to enjoy all this book had to offer while physically seeing whales from the deck of a ship and visiting light houses.  But even if you are sitting at home, landlocked in your comfy chair, Naslund's lyrical writing and compelling protagonist will take you on a memorable journey, as long as you are willing to sit back and let her take you on a ride at her own pace.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  classics revisited, historical woman's life, lyrical

Readalikes:  There are so many directions you could take readers after they finished this book.  First, obviously, many will be interested in the source material, Moby Dick.  But also, Nathaniel Philbrick has spent much of his popular, nonfiction writing career researching Moby Dick.  Readers might want to try In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex or the new title, Why Read Moby Dick?

Other "classics revisited" which would appeal to fans of Ahab's Wife include Finn by Jon Clinch (my review is here) which looks at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Huck's father's perspective, Geraldine Brooks' March which is a retelling of Little Women from the absent father's point of view, and The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall which looks at Gone With the Wind from the slaves' perspective. All are set around a similar time period, bring up similar issues, and use a beloved piece of literature as their frame.

In a similar vein, I would also suggest the novel Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud which is a fictionalized account of the slave who fathered many of Thomas Jefferson's children.  The nonfiction counterpoint here would be the award winning nonfiction title, The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed.

As I was reading Ahab's Wife I could not stop thinking about how similar it is to Isabel Allende's Ines of My Soul which is about one of the female founders of Chile in the 1500s.  We read it for book club here.  As a rule, both Naslund and Allende write lyrical, authentic stories of brave and bold women.

Although it takes place a century before the action in Ahab's Wife, Brookland by Emily Barton, which I reviewed here, follows a young, strong woman's life and her place in history.  Interestingly, I also finally got to Brookland this year after a few years of it languishing on my "to-read" list.

Finally for another leisurely placed saga story, featuring strong characters, and a love story at its heart, try Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Now on to the rest of the long back log of books read and not yet reviewed...

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