Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book 20: Ahab's Wife

"There did seem to be a small boat upon that sea, but that boat was myself. It was this house and all that was in it, and I was alone at the tiller, reading the stars."

Dates read: February 10-16, 2016

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: Time Magazine's Best Books of the Year

For some reason, Moby-Dick has gotten a reputation as a boring slog of a book. That's what I had in my head before I read it last year, anyways, and was delighted to be proven wrong. It's actually both lively and informative, full of adventure and interesting facts about whaling in the olden days of yore. And while our narrator, Ishmael, is a bit of a cipher, Captain Ahab is one of the most memorable characters in literature, with his ivory false leg and burning wrath for the white whale. And in a throwaway line or two, it's mentioned that he has a wife at home.

In Ahab's Wife, author Sena Jeter Naslund takes that barely-mentioned, never seen character and gives us her whole life. A novel I read in high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, had the same kind of basis (took a minor biblical character and told her life story), and I loved that book wholeheartedly. Which probably set my expectations a little too high, which isn't really fair, but between that and a killer first line, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last", I was really excited to read this book.

As you can probably surmise from the above, I didn't like it quite as much as I was hoping. Una Spenser is meant to be a one-of-a-kind, irrepressible heroine, but I found her maybe a little too special. She's not just lovely, smart, brave, resilient, passionate, and strong, she's also an object of desire for virtually every man she meets, treated with lavish kindness by almost every person of either gender that she comes across, and unfailingly tolerant and liberal in her attitudes. Which is just not very realistic, and leaves her ringing false as a character. While she certainly has to overcome obstacles (the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck, her treatment at the hands of her first husband, the loss of her first child, the death of her second husband), her only real "flaw" seems to be that she's too impulsive and headstrong, too daring. Which, of course, is presented as not much of a flaw at all.

I wish that Una was a better-drawn and more well-rounded character, because this book could have been quite lovely. Naslund's prose is definitely on the flowery side (if this turns you off, avoid this book at all costs because you will hate it), but I can get down with that if the story is compelling. The first half of the book had much more dramatic tension and excitement than the second half, which dragged in the long sections describing Una standing in the wind and gazing at the stars and/or sea, philosophizing about the world and her place in it. It's quite a lengthy novel at over 650 pages, and editing down some of the aforementioned mind-wandering-while-hair-blows-in-the-wind passages might make Una (and her story as a whole) a little more dynamic and interesting. That being said, I did enjoy reading it and thought it was a pretty good book. Just not quite as good as I wanted it to be.

Tell me, blog there a minor literary character that you'd like to read the whole story of?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

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