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

3.9 out of 5 stars 501 customer reviews

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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.

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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: 1.1 x 5.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (501 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,394,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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.
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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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Characters not the least bit believable. 21st century sensibilities applied to 19th century problems (slavery, treatment of women, sex). As The NY Times review said at the time of publication: "... when one gets to the scene of a more or less uncloseted gay male character teaching newly freed slaves to make pots by the seaside, one might well feel that wish fulfillment has trumped artistic good sense."

A waste of time.
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Format: Paperback
I let "Ahab's Wife" sit on the shelf for months after purchasing it, worried that it would turn out to be some sort of preachy feminist pastiche. I needn't have worried. Though its protagonist is no slouch as a feminist, that wasn't among its several big flaws, and for me the flaws were comfortably outweighed by its rich rewards.
Taken sentence for sentence, almost all the writing is luscious. The author's love of "Moby-Dick", and her sharp-eyed fidelity to its setting, time, and characters, is evident throughout. Only during the brief part of the novel actually taking place on the Pequod does Naslund attempt to replicate Melville's voice, or rather several of his voices, in a sequence of chapters in the form of soliloquies and playlets. That effort is as successful as it is amusing, but the remaining, non-Pequod, passages are kinder on the syntax-challenged 21st century reader than Melville was.
I loved the accurate period detail, on quilting and cooking and lightouse keeping, on blubber rendering and religious factions. I enjoyed the way the story flowed effortlessly along, but left plenty of Easter eggs for the alert reader to find. (What is the model in "Moby-Dick" for the ship Sussex? Why do the castaways throw their raincatching cups away before they are rescued? Why does Giles ask Una for her earring on the Alba Albatross?)
The first two thirds of the book has a powerful narrative drive, with vivid characters, robust suspense and dire catastrophes; powerful enough that the momentum carried me through the doldrums of the last third of the book, which meanders, and reads less like a novel than like the diary entries of some pleasant, progressive young 1840s matron with a penchant for name dropping.
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