Thursday, May 20, 2010

Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife : Book Review

 I read Herman Melville's Moby Dick because I wanted to read Ahab's Wife. Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund can stand alone, but I'm just like that. Because both books are fairly long and I've been rather busy lately, I've been reading about whaling ships, whales, the ocean, Nantucket, etc. for over a month now. Besides the reading, Thomas and I have looked up video clips online of sperm whales to fill in the visual gaps of Melville's details. Utah Dad and I have been enjoying the Blue Planet videos from BBC in the evenings. We've also watched the movie Moby Dick twice--once by ourselves and again with the kids. (By the way, Gregory Peck makes a great Captain Ahab.) I'm also very vocal about what I'm reading, which means I've shared all the details with Utah Dad and the kids. It was obvious that we've become a little obsessed when one evening this week, the kids rearranged the lawn furniture into  the "Pequod" and were making Thomas pretend to be Captain Ahab. They referred to Utah Dad as Moby Dick. I wish I were rich enough to fly the entire family to Nantucket for our own adventure.

Honestly, my first impression after finishing Moby Dick was disappointment. Melville created eccentric, inimitable and yet completely believable characters and put them in an intriguing situation and then abandons them for hundreds of pages to include every single particular point about the variety of whales, the anatomy of whales, and the science of whaling. I actually enjoyed learning about it but I felt that the tale got lost amidst the minutiae of factual details. However, when Melville does get to the heart of the story it is fascinating, riveting, and emotionally moving and it is clear why Moby Dick is often considered the greatest American novel. The emotional conflicts between characters and themselves are Shakespearean in scope and ultimately Captain Ahab's monomaniac desire for revenge against the beast results in tragedy (I hope I didn't ruin it for you).

Since I've been thinking about and discussing Moby Dick the last few weeks, I actually appreciate the work more and more.

Captain Ahab is one of literature's most enigmatic characters. I found him captivating and he is, shall we say, man enough to inspire another book. Naslund, the author of Ahab's Wife read the few lines in Moby Dick that mention Ahab's wife and son and imagined what kind of woman would marry and be loved by Captain Ahab (his love for her exists even at the height of his insanity).

The resulting novel is fabulous. I enjoyed it more than most books I've read recently. The character of Una is strong, intelligent, and witty. She is unhampered by the time's constraints of women and creates her own adventures. She survives life's tragedies through her own mental strength and desire. She is a perfect match for Captain Ahab.

The novel is well researched and peopled with interesting characters both fictional and real. Una befriends transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and astronomer Maria Mitchell, real Nantucket and Boston women of learning. She is also present when former slave and author Frederick Douglass speaks in Nantucket and excites the abolitionist movement. Naslund accurately and beautifully depicts the early nineteenth century whaling experience, the settings of Nantucket and Kentucky and even the political, religious, and philosophical atmosphere.

Most impressively, Naslund seamlessly weaves the story of Moby Dick into her own much newer work. It fits so well, that one might actually be convinced that Naslund and Melville wrote their manuscripts side by side.

Quite simply, I loved Ahab's Wife. It is exactly what I expect from a novel.

Don't think my obsession with reading about whaling is over. Earlier this week I ordered In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by historian Nathaniel Philbrick. I'm looking forward to reading about the real events that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick in the first place.


Megan said...

I had to read Moby Dick in high school, and it was the only assigned book that I never made it all the way through. I couldn't stand it. I've never tried it again, although maybe someday I'll give it another chance.

I have read and enjoyed both of the other two books you mention, though. Of them, I enjoyed In the Heard of the Sea better. Although Ahab's Wife was really well written and I liked it, I felt that it dragged in a few spots, and I thought that the ending was awfully contrived.

I'm interested to hear what you think about In the Heart of the Sea.

Booklogged said...

I've never even been tempted to read Moby Dick but I enjoyed your review. I'm adding Ahab's Wife to my toppling TBR mountain! Looking forward to your review of In the Heart of the Sea. I'd love to go on that vacation to Nantucket!

anna said...

My dad loves, loves Moby Dick. I think he owns multiple copies. But all of his favorite books seem to be loooong. I got a little sick of reading about all the whaling details as well. But maybe I should give it another chance because I read it right after A River Runs through It and I was so sick of hearing about fishing I wanted to scream.

I have wanted to read Ahab's wife for a while now. Maybe after I finish Margaret George's book on Henry VIII - it's great. I'm half-way through - only 500 more pages to go. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, hehehe.