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Ahab's Wife (Naslund) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
Much of the book, though not all, I love. Mostly, I admire the creativity 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. 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 feels contrived, at times silly...
A LitLovers LitPick (Dec. '06)


"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," says Una Spenser, the eponymous narrator, in the first sentence of this deliciously old-fashioned bildungsroman, adventure story and romance. Naslund's inspiration, based on one reference in Moby-Dick, may not satisfy aficonados of Melville's dense, richly symbolic masterpiece, but it should please most other readers with its suspenseful, affecting, historically accurate and seductive narrative. At age 12, Una escapes her religiously obsessed father in rural Kentucky to live with relatives in a lighthouse off New Bedford, Mass. When she is 16Adisguised as a boyAshe runs off to sea aboard a whaler, which sinks after being rammed by its quarry. Una and two young men who love her are the only survivors of a group set adrift in an open boat, but the dark secret of their cannibalism will leave its mark. Rescued, Una is wed to one of the young men by the captain of the Pequod, handsome, commanding Ahab, who has not as yet met the white whale that will be his destiny. These eventsArecounted in stately prose nicely dotted with literary allusionsAtake the reader only through the first quarter of the book. Una's later marriage to AhabAa passionate and intellectually satisfying relationshipAthe loss of her mother and her newborn son in one night, and her life as a rich woman in Nantucket are further developments in a plot teeming with arresting events and provocative ideas. Una is an enchanting protagonist: intellectually curious, sensitive, imaginative and kind. But Naslund also endows her with restlessness, rash impetuosity and a refreshing skepticism about traditional religion, qualities that humanize what verges on an idealized personality, and that motivate Una's search for spiritual sustenance. Unitarianism and Universalism are two of the religions she investigates; other "dark issues of our time" include slavery, and the position of women. Social and cultural details texture the lengthy, episodic, discursive narrative. Una's search for identity brings her friendship with such real life figures as writer Margaret Fuller and astronomer Maria Mitchell, and with such colorful fictional characters as an escaped slave and a dwarf bounty hunter. Even Halley's Comet makes an appearance. Provocatively, Naslund (The Disobedience of Water) suggests a new source of Ahab's demented rage to kill the whale who has "unmasted" him. Some elements of the novel jar, especially Naslund's tendency to pay rhapsodic tributes to Una's questing spirit; a surfeit of noble, large-souled and amazingly generous characters; and the symmetrical neatness of the plot. In the last third of the book, readers may become weary of Una's spiritual reflections and the minutiae of her daily routine. But these are small faults in a splendid novel that amply fulfills its ambitious purpose offering a sweeping, yet intimate picture of a remarkable woman who both typifies and transcends her times.
Publishers Weekly


At age 12, Una a nonconformist, is sent from Kentucky to Nantucket because she refuses to believe in Christianity. At age 16 she runs away to sea, posing as a cabin boy aboard a whaler. She enjoys her adventure until the first whale is killed and processed, and then one day her ship is rammed by one of them. After weeks in a lifeboat, she is rescued and taken back to Nantucket aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab. Una and Ahab find they have much in common, from their passionate tempers to their stubborn tenacity, so they marry and have a son. When Ahab returns to sea, he becomes obsessed with the white whale, Moby Dick. News comes back that the Pequod sank, leaving a single survivor called Ishmael. When Una meets him, her life begins again. Masterfully read by Maryann Plunkett and beautifully written, this tale gives another possible perspective on the dour Captain Ahab and his family. Recommended. —Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence
Library Journal


Una...has the ability to rise and rise again after illness, destruction, and loss. And through it all she possesses a sense of wonder, the experience of divinity in all things. A complex and sophisticated book, brilliantly written, beautifully illustrated. —Grace Fill
Booklist


Nothing in Naslund's previous fiction prepares us for this extraordinary tale: a ravishingly detailed re-creation of the worlds of 19th-century antebellum America and of Melvilles seminal Moby Dick. The protagonist, and primary narrator, is Una Spenser (whose bookish mother named her after the heroine of The Faerie Queene), whom we first meet in her native Kentucky, where shes returned to give birth to her first childsired by her second husband: middle-aged Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod. Naslund's flexible and fascinating narrative then leaps from Una's ordeal (both her baby and her beloved mother die) and an inspiring new friendshipbackward, to the story of her upbringing among relatives who tend a New England lighthouse, apprenticeship at sea disguised as a cabin boy, conflicted first marriage to an increasingly deranged husband, and eventual union with the brooding Ahab, whom even his young wife's resourceful love cannot deflect him from his vengeful pursuit of the white whale he imagines Evil Incarnate. Then Una returns to Kentucky, thence back east (Nantucket), where her restless intellect involves her with New England's ruling intellectual elite (including Transcendentalist icon Margaret Fuller) and the burgeoning abolitionist movement. The climactic pages, concentrated on Ahab's increasing monomania and Una's realization that hes lost to her, vibrate with tragic intensity. And the long meditative denouement, alive with echoes of Melville's cadences, memorably depicts Una's gradual fulfillment in a society poised on the cusp of civil war, her being saved by living testimony of (her surviving son, Justice) and by her gratifying, if belated, relationship with the Pequod's sole survivor) to the power of love and service to others, both neutralizing the fury that had consumed the doomed Ahab. Excepting a few inconsequential false steps, a genuine epic of America: an inspired homage to one of our greatest writers that brilliantly reinterprets, and in many ways rivals, his masterpiece.
Kirkus Reviews




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