I read one review that described Sena Jeter Naslund's writing in Ahab's Wife Or, The Star-Gazer as lyrical. I won't argue with that, but I do think that there were a few too many stanzas for my taste. I think that Naslund could really have used a strong editor to guide her--200 fewer pages would have been really nice on this one. I felt like I kept reading and reading, and I still wasn't close to finishing.
Inspired by a passage from Moby Dick, Naslund creates a character and then has her tell us her life story. The opening line capured my imagination right away. "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." We meet Una in the throes of childbirth, fearful and alone. From there, the book crisscrosses through time to weave the rich tapestry of Una's life.
I read the book for one of my book clubs. I'm a fan of the re-telling of a tale, so it's not that I didn't enjoy the experience, but I found this a tough read. I've been mulling over why that was, and here is what I've concluded:
In a time when most people never travelled more than 50 miles from where they were born, Una was everywhere! Born in Kentucky, raised on a lighthouse island, heads off to sea, Nantucket, back to Kentucky, back to Nantucket. That's a lot of getting around, for a woman at that time, no less.
The other thing is that many, many people in Una's life do not fare well at all. I know that life is harsh, but all of that stretched the limits of my credibility.
I think that Naslund had trouble figuring out how to end the book. She tackled too much and couldn't wind it up. My favorite parts of the book were actually her relationship with Ahab, but if that all told encompassed 100 pages of the book, I'd be surprised. I wanted more of that and less of the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendalists, Abolitionists, and Suffragists that Naslund kept introducing. I felt like they all got in the way of the real story. Katie, a member of the book club, found Una's encounters a little too reminiscent of Forrest Gump's. Would a little nobody from Kentucky really meet Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass? For purposes of this story, did she need to? I don't think so.
Una's relationships with many people bothered me. Naslund didn't convey Una's grief to me very satisfactorily. I often felt like she was unemotional and detached.
Una was often pretty insensitive to people she supposedly cared for; for example, she ditches her family to go to sea and it isn't until she's older that she can see how cruel that was to them.
To sum up, I would have preferred a shorter, tighter novel that focused on Una being Ahab's wife. Katie pulled out a copy of Moby Dick and discovered that the length and number of chapters were very similar to Ahab's Wife, so Naslund's intent was probably to mirror that construction. An interesting approach, but ultimately one that didn't work for me.