Ahab's Wife; Or, The Star-Gazer

~by Sena Jeter Naslund
2001 Orange Prize Nominee

My mom doesn't buy many books, preferring to take advantage of public, and other people's, libraries. But Ahab's Wife she fell in love with and wanted to take her time enjoying (it being a rather hefty tome), so purchased a copy when it was still only available in hardcover. Several years later, one of my supervisors was talking to me about a book she was enjoying as was surprised when I was able to guess the title--Ahab's Wife. She offered her copy to me after she was finished, and I gladly accepted. My mom and I haven't read many of the same books, so it's kinda cool to be able to talk to her about this one.

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.

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