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Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel Paperback – October 3, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0688177850 ISBN-10: 0688177859

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: HarpPeren (October 3, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688177859
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688177850
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (383 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,676,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

It has been said that one can see farther only by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ahab's Wife, Sena Naslund's epic work of historical fiction, honors that aphorism, using Herman Melville's Moby-Dick as looking glass into early-19th-century America. Through the eye of an outsider, a woman, she suggests that New England life was broader and richer than Melville's manly world of men, ships, and whales. This ambitious novel pays tribute to Melville, creating heroines from his lesser characters, and to America's literary heritage in general.

Una, named for the heroine of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, flees to the New England coast from Kentucky to escape her father's puritanism and to pursue a more exalted life. She gets whaling out of her system early: going to sea at 16 disguised as a boy, Una has her ship sunk by her own monstrous whale, and survives a harrowing shipwreck:

I was so horrified by the whale's deliberate charge that I could not move. Then my own name flew up from below like a spear: "Una!" Giles' voice broke my trance, and I scrambled down the rigging. No sooner did my foot touch the deck than there was such a lurch that I fell to my face. I heard and felt the boards break below the waterline, the copper sheathing nothing but decorative foil. The whole ship shuddered. A death throe.
The ship dies, but Una returns to land to pursue the life of the mind. The novel's opening line--"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last"--also diminishes Melville's hero in the broader scheme of things. Naslund exposes the reader to the unsung, real-life heroes of Melville's world, including Margaret Fuller and her Boston salon, and Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell. There is a chance meeting with a veiled Nathaniel Hawthorne in the woods, and throughout the novel the story brims with references to the giants of literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Keats, and Wordsworth. Although her novel runs long at nearly 700 pages, Naslund has created an imaginative, entertaining, and very impressive work. --Ted Leventhal --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"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. Illustrations by Christopher Wormell. 150,000 first printing; $150,000 ad/promo; 20-city author tour; BOMC main selection; Simon & Schuster audio. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund is the author of the novels Four Spirits and Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette and a short story collection, The Disobedience of Water. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, she is a winner of the Harper Lee Award; Distinguished Teaching Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisville; director of the Spalding University brief-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program; former poet laureate of Kentucky; and editor of The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-Lis Press.

Customer Reviews

Amazing story, beautiful writing, deep insights.
alfredo vergara
It was way too long in that I had to force myself to read the last 200 pages so that I would finish it for the book club.
Jane F. Beaupre
That's having the main character romantically involved with several characters from the original book.
K. Freeman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

152 of 162 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I'm confused. Has the mark of good fiction now become brevity? I didn't find a single word in this glorious book wasted. If anything, I was sorry that the book ended when it did, as I would have willingly continued to follow Una's adventures. What an amazing character! Women in the nineteenth century lived fascinating lives, but since "social" history did not come into vogue until the 20th century, we are only now beginning to know about the lives of women. Novelists, drawing on the knowledge that we do have, are filling in the gaps to create fully fleshed-out characters such as Una.
If you're looking for a quick read, best look elsewhere. If you love rich language, love strong female characters, love tales of the sea, then read this book. Ms. Naslund is to be congratulated for creating a truly memorable character and for allowing such a character to experience a full banquet of life experiences.
Brava!
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64 of 71 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
I finally made it through Ahab's Wife because I was determined to finish it. I, and not just Una, was on a journey. I was searching for a point. I found the first 200 pages very gripping but the rest of the book lost my interest because it was not the telling of one story but of many different story threads and themes, that unfortunately, never get sewn together into a beautiful Kentucky quilt. I'm not sorry I read it but Una telling her life story was not enough to captivate me through 600 pages of various side plots that ring hollow with moral righteousness.
The story became far too absurd and yet took itself too seriously to revel in the absurdity. It reminded me a lot of the movie Forest Gump but at least Forest Gump appeared to have some self-awareness of how ridiculous all of the coincidences and star cameos where and by that awareness made them entertaining. The smorgasbord of famous literary figures, artists, renowned abolitionists, scientists, madmen, dwarfs, slaves, suffragists, sea captains and gays drown the story with the ridiculous. The story would have been better served with fewer exoticized characters that were more developed. The most interesting characters die off or fade from the story far too early.
My sister and I used to read a lot of romance novels and joke back and forth about the various carriage accidents, sudden deaths, and tragedies that would befall the poor main characters. This book was filled with so many and such varied calamities that I felt there was a great burden put on the character Una. She was just one woman, but she was forced to represent all woman who might possibly have lived in this time period and to suffer all of their losses and rejoice in all of their successes.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The stories contained in _The Disobedience of Water_ are about emotions, how they control us and shape our lives. The characters Naslund creates are rich with conflicting feelings about faith, love, and friendship. They're at once kind and cruel, moral and amoral, as these waves of emotion build and break. Naslund's courageous honesty will change the way you think about love, life, and art, while her beautiful, Southern style will leave you waiting for more.
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77 of 90 people found the following review helpful By D. Cheong on January 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Ahab's Wife suffers from being perhaps a little too long. I had to struggle to finish the final quater of the book because it seems to lack a certain dramatic impact, especially when compared to the rest of the book. However, in general, this novel is still a fabulous read. I found it epic in scope and extremely poignant. I loved Naslund's initial premise - placing a woman with 20th century morality and "modern" fears, desires, loathings and hopes in the middle of the 19th century just as the age of industrialisation was dawning. We are witness to not only Una's incredible adventures but also her uncanny ability to rise above the social restrictions of the day and develop a wonderfully liberal, tolerant and free thinking attitude towards life. The novel reads like an ocean going sailing ship, swaying and flowing gacefully across the sea. And the cast of characters are truly eclectic: From intelligence and sexual ambiguity of Una's fellow sailors Giles and Kit to the staunchly seaman like Captain Ahab. Naslund introduces to many memorable people. Naslund also raises some delightfully "modern" issues: Cannibalism, the nature of sexuality, single parenthood, feminism and the state of the man and his psyche in a time when the individual was becoming increasingly aware of his position in the universe.
Although the length is an issue this is still a fine novel which certainly packs a wallop and it surely begs a sequel.
Michael Leonard
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I read this novel with great pleasure. In this age of post-modernist spareness, it is delicious to read a big thick book with a plot and many characters. I did indeed feel that I was transported into another world, and I like it when a book can do this for me. I did, however, have some difficulty with the basic premise of the novel. Although it's years since I read Moby Dick, Ahab's mythic shadow is still present in my mind. I cannot, even suspending all disbelief, imagine him as a domestic creature in any way. Ahab as a lover is beyond my imaginative capacities. Appparently, not so for Naslund. In the end, though, I just could not be convinced that Ahab would be at all interested in a hearth (even if shared with the adventurous, sensual Una) and this hampered my full enjoyment of the novel. The same goes for Ishmael--a husband? I think not. Ishmael is a wanderer and always will be for me. While the plot of Moby Dick is nowhere near fresh in my mind, its mythic imprint remains, and though Naslund's book is very pleasurable, interesting, and yes, a great deal easier to read, I can't really see it as a companion to Melville's work. I suspect many who have not read Melville will read it and enjoy it, but on a deep, spiritual level, it doesn't seem much related to the classic. Even so, I highly recommend the book. I learned lots from it and had plenty of new images created in my mind as a result of reading it. The plot can be rather pat in places, but there are lovely scenes which are quite fantastical (the protagonist's journey through the forest with a dwarf, the idyllic life at an island lighthouse, and some wonderful descriptions of food!)--these scenes, rather than the main character and her romances will remain with me.
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