From Publishers Weekly
Novelist, poet, and biographer Parini (The Last Station) drops in on Herman Melville via Melville's wife, Lizzie, in this solid if sometimes slow nod to one of literature's greats. Twenty years into their marriage, Lizzie's faith in H.M.'s writing career has dimmed, and she has become a "captive" to her unpredictable husband, whose "improbable highs and lows" rock their marriage and family. Intertwined with Lizzie's heartfelt recollections is a straightforward third-person narration recounting H.M.'s adventures as a merchant seaman, his time on whaling vessels and schooners, and the daring jumping of ship to commune with cannibals in Tahiti. H.M.'s rise to literary greatness and subsequent disillusionment (notably the poor critical reception Moby Dick garnered) are leavened with cameos by Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Parini's creative reanimation of Melville injects humanity into a tormented soul whose bright, promising early days peaked dramatically before curdling into a morass of dejection. Melville's adventures make for good reading, and even if Lizzie's passages aren't the most dynamic, Parini manages a generous and appreciative assessment.
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Herman Melville’s tormented soul comes to life through the prose of his wife, Lizzie, about whom very little is known in real life but who comes across as “a marvelous creation, a smoldering prisoner of bitterness and devotion, resentment and affection” (Washington Post
). Any fictionalized biography of an elusive writer such as Herman Melville is certain to generate some controversy. Some critics found Parini’s version of Melville’s inner musings to be too much guesswork, although this may amount to a criticism of the genre as a whole. Most reviewers agreed, however, that Parini remains faithful to what facts we know of Melville and that Melville’s life told through his wife’s eyes renders the writer human and accessible, if sometimes robbed of drama. While some readers may prefer to intuit Melville’s mind from the writer’s own inspired works of fiction, others will find The Passages of H.M.
to be a fine, insightful work of historical biography.