Ahab's Wife (Review)


Ahab's Wife
Sena Jeter Naslund, 1999
668 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2006

Some people devour this book; others have told me they couldn't get through it. Certainly, it's an ambitious underaking: the retelling of Moby-Dick, America's great epic, from a woman's vantage point.

Much of the book I love—though not all of it. Mostly, I admire the intelligence and courage of a writer to attempt such a work, especially a writer with a such a powerful sense of myth and elegant prose style.

At 16 Una Spencer disguises herself as a boy, like many a Shakespeare heroine, and takes to sea on a whaler. After much adventure and misadventure, she meets and marries Captain Ahab—she a young girl, and he a middle-aged, wizened captain.

Melville paints Ahab larger-than-life—a tragic hero, driven, reckless, and implacable. Naslund domesticates him, reducing him in size. Here we find a kinder-gentler version. And a great lover, to boot.

Overall, Naslund gives us a wide slice of 19th-century life, the great political, religious and philosophical conflicts of the time: abolition, women's suffrage, and religion versus reason. Una (a name symbolic of oneness with Ahab; Una is Ahab) has a 21st-century feminist sensibility, refusing to be tied down to the standard mores of her era...or this era, for that matter. Fulfillment is her pursuit, and she hunts it down with the single-mindedness of Ahab.

The problem is that Una careens from one high adventure to another, which starts to feel contrived—at times, even down-right silly. Her character is so relentlessly self-sufficient that she reminds me (talk about silly) of my childhood infatuation with Nancy Drew with her constant adventures. I finally grew sick of Nancy's perfection and chronic state of happiness, and I came to feel much the same about Una. I wish Naslund had restrained her a bit, made her more fallible and believable.

Still, devotees of literature will have fun with Ahab's Wife, picking out the literary references sprinkled throughout. There's Moby-Dick, as well as Hawthorne, Emerson, Shakespeare, the English Romantic poets, the Brothers Grimm, even Homer. There are also Una's friendships with real-life people: Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, and the astronomer Maria Mitchell, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass. In this, the book resembles E. L. Doctorow, a post-modernist mingling of fictional and historical characters

See our Reading Guide for Ahab's Wife.

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