Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

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9780688171872: Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab.

Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force.

Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory. After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship.

Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph.

"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab.

Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force.

Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory. After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship.

Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph."Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab.

Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force.

Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory. After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship.

Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph.

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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

About the Author:

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

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