“Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star-Gazer” by Sena Jeter Naslund
I don’t care what your list of books to read looks like.
I don’t even care what you’re currently reading.
Put it down and go get a copy of “Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star-Gazer,” by Sena Jeter Naslund.
You have to read this book.
Now, you know I like deconstruction. Nothing gets my juices going like an author who takes a character from an existing novel and paints them in a whole new light, which is exactly what Ms. Naslund has done in this book. She took the briefest of sentences from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and, like a clever spider, wove it into a 600 page epic novel of a woman’s life by land and by sea.
Melville’s Captain Ahab is, as my 12th grade English teacher described him, a “monomaniacal” man obsessed with one thing; killing a giant white whale. In “Moby Dick,” he’s not exactly humanized through the eyes of rookie sailor Ishmael. He’s kind of a one-trick pony in his quest. By telling the story of Una, the woman who would become Ahab’s wife, Naslund takes this singular creation of Melville’s and paints him in a way that has forever changed my reading of “Moby Dick,” in much the same way that Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” (and the mega-musical it was made into) have forever changed my viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” Naslund actually made me want to re-read “Moby Dick,” which I haven’t done since high school. (Not that I don’t like the book. I absolutely do. But it was a monster to get through back then, to be honest, even for a booknerd.)
Naslund created Una from one sentence, but the story of Una’s life is rich and filled with detail and heart. From Una’s upbringing under the hand of a crazy-religious father, to her years living with her Aunt and Uncle on a lighthouse island, to her disguising herself as a boy to go sailing, to her life as a wife and mother to the infamous Captain Ahab, reading this book is like taking an adventure. You can practically feel the wind in your hair and smell the sea air and the chowder.
(A note about chowder: I first learned of this book thanks to it’s inclusion in “The Book Club Cookbook,” where it’s accompanied by a recipe for seafood chowder. No joke. There are so many mentions of the dish in this book, if you finish reading and don’t feel like devouring some form of chowder, you weren’t reading close enough.)
Another reason I loved this book – I was reminded of both “Jane Eyre” and “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle,” which are two of my all-time favorites. Una is a self-aware narrator, who points out things to her readers from time to time just like Jane Eyre does. The whole “girl dressed as a boy on a ship” thing made me want to re-visit Avi’s Charlotte Doyle, a book that delighted me as an eighth grader (and which I am still stunned hasn’t been made into some sort of movie.)
Sometimes, even the most dedicated reader (example: me) needs a reminder of what being thrilled by a book is like. “Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star-Gazer” did exactly that. I’m incredibly sad to have finished the book, and wish I could read it for the first time all over again. Books like this don’t come along every day.