Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ahab's Wife

I just finished reading Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund. It was recommended to me based on my enjoyment of Moby Dick, and amounts to a long addendum to that book. Or maybe it is fan fiction? Actually, it touches only tangentially on the characters and plot of Moby Dick; after all, Ahab spends all his time being haunted and stalking a whale at sea. He leaves his wife behind, and this is her story.

The book opens with the sentence:
Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.
This is now one of my favorite opening lines. The promise of the story! It yanks our attention: we already know all about Captain Ahab's looney end, but his wife? Her mention in Moby Dick is brief and provides no explanation: how did a creepily-driven, single-purpose captain like Ahab end up married? We also wonder about her story: who was the first husband, and what happened to him? Who does she marry after Ahab?

The book fails to live up to the promise of this first line. What it satisfies is a modern, liberated woman's dream of an ideal, rustic-yet-intelligent, helpless-yet-self-determining, protesting-yet-permissive, whatever-yet-whatever life in the 1800s. Among the unrealistic things accomplished by the protagonist that irritated me:
  • As a 15-year-old girl with no education, she discusses the dilemma of whether light is a particle or a wave.
  • She singlehandedly invents/discovers guacamole, with the author going out of the way to call it "a mash or jam of a strange greenish fruit with a large pit" so as to avoid the historically inaccurate knowledge of the word "guacamole."
  • Despite growing up in rural Kentucky, she is an abolitionist.
  • Despite being an abolitionist, she is not in favor of temperance.
  • She singlehandedly frees a slave, in the middle of winter, in the deep South, while in labor, as her mother and baby are dying/newly-deceased.
  • She meets Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • She meets and admires Frederick Douglass, and encourages all her correspondents to meet and admire him, too.
These little irritants accumulated throughout the book, so that big irritants (she survives 3 months without food or water on an open boat in the Pacific) don't even matter. And her first husband? Not even a meaningful plot point. Her third husband is, of course, Ishmael, who encourages her to write her book even as he is writing his. That explains the similarity of styles (one of the things I really liked: this book mimics "Moby Dick"'s long-winded passages about the ocean). But, blech. How uncreative. I didn't get any great insight into Ahab, Ishmael, Ahab's wife, the whale Moby Dick, or any other character from the original book or newly-fabricated for this spin-off.

My take-away feeling? Boo on Ahab's Wife. Write to the time! I want a first-person woman's story from this period of time to be full of chores and oppression, and I want her to be uneducated. (Understand that in real life, I am opposed to such things today. Of course.) I want my historical fiction with a little more history, and a little less fiction.

This post's theme word: maritorious, "to be excessively fond of one's husband."

1 comment:

Hala Iqbal said...

i have never read a sequel/prequel/any-other-variation thereof of a book that i haven't been disappointed in. i give up on them.