Written by Sena Jeter Naslund
Published by Perennial Press
Review by Martina S. Jones
I had Ahab’s Wife on my shelf for some time. I picked it up months ago and read about 100 pages but it didn’t enthrall me. My book club had picked it at the suggestion of a member who couldn’t stop raving about it and so I dutifully went to Barnes and Noble and bought myself a copy. I liked the premise, that this was the story of Captain Ahab’s wife who was mentioned so briefly in Melville’s classic Moby Dick. I like that women are now reappropriating great moments in time, whether those moments be literary, biblical, or historical, and showing that women were present then and important. I began reading Ahab’s Wife, but honestly I wasn’t enraptured. Aside from a great opening line, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” I found Naslund’s prose wordy and her premises odd, and then my doctor scheduled knee surgery for me during the week when my book club met so I had a good excuse to put the book away. About a month ago I was wandering the house looking for something to read when I saw Ahab’s Wife still sitting on my shelf so I decided to give it another chance.
Upon a second reading and moving past the first 100 pages I found that the novel had more promise than I originally granted it. Naslund’s prose took on more of a 19th century feel with its vivid descriptions and intricate sentences. This novel wants to be seen on an epic scale and desires to include every detail. Though Una Spenser is Captain Ahab’s wife, Naslund begs us repeatedly to understand that she is so much more. Naslund has stretched far to create a multi-dimensional character who is intelligent and adventurous and ahead of her time in terms of her actions and beliefs.
There are still some elements of the novel that stretch thin for me. Naslund’s story of how Una meets Captain Ahab seems contrived. As often as I remind myself that this is a novel, a made-up story of pretend, I cannot convince myself that Una would have ever been able to successfully disguise herself as a boy and go to sea on a whaler. Yes, this is how she ultimately meets and marries Ahab. The details of how Una conducted herself on the ship seem a little odd as well. Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne both make appearances in Una’s world, which seem out of place when compared to the pace and flow of the rest of the story. And Una’s philosophical meanderings grow tiresome after awhile.
As I’ve talked to others who have read this novel, some absolutely adore it and can dismiss the oddities with a suspension of disbelief that is required when reading fiction. I enjoyed the book for what it was, an interesting “what if” about a character briefly mentioned in one of the finest novels ever written.
Martina S. Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at UCLA. She has had articles and stories published in journals seen internationally, and she is currently working on her first historical novel set during 19th century New England.