Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer
  • Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer
  • Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer
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Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer

4.0 125
by Sena Jeter Naslund, Christopher Wormell, Christopher Wormell

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"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab. Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand…  See more details below


"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab. Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force. Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory. After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship. Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph.

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Editorial Reviews

Call Me Una...

In her new novel, Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund takes perhaps the least eligible bachelor in all of American literature and makes his marriage and pillow talk the very stuff of her book. It is a tall order she sets for herself, and one that she does not fail in filling. There's no mistaking Naslund's Ahab for Melville's Ahab, but her captain has his own, less imposing charms to offer. The real focus, of course, is on the title character, the wonderfully wrought Una Spenser, Ahab's wife, in whose labyrinthine adventures of the heart Ahab's hand is but a single lovely room.

Naslund is no stranger to the challenges of a novel based on the reimagining of a literary figure. Her novel Sherlock in Love begins with Watson's decision to write a biography of his old friend. After putting an advertisement in the paper for information about Sherlock Holmes, Watson discovers many details of the famous detective's life that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never had the time to mention. Ahab's Wife is a decidedly more ambitious project, for who is the archetypal forbidding patriarch in our literature but Ahab? And yet Naslund's attempt to show us another side of his life is wholly believable and deeply moving.

The novel begins with Una Spenser delivering Ahab's first child in a rural cabin in Kentucky, while the captain is at sea. The baby dies, as does Una's mother, who has gone to find a doctor. She explains her reasons for starting her narrative there: "I needed to tell those terrible things first, to pass through the Scylla and Charybdis early in my voyage of telling; otherwise, I feared I would turn back, be unable to complete my story, if those terrors loomed ahead." Safely past, she returns to her childhood and begins her story there. After a terrible fight with her Methodist zealot father, Una is sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are lighthouse keepers near Rhode Island. It is there that Una first discovers her love of the sea. The love is not immediate. Upon first glance at the sea, Una says with contempt, "It's not wild enough." But when two handsome sailors, Giles Bonebright and Kit Sparrow, arrive from New Bedford, Una becomes enraptured, first with them, and then with the ocean they speak of so reverently.

By now Una's mother has become pregnant with her second child, and mother and daughter have plans to meet in New Bedford. Una waits for her mother at the Sea-Fancy Inn, which is across the street from the Spouter Inn, which readers will remember from Chapter Three of Moby-Dick. When Una's mother sends a letter explaining that she has miscarried and will return home to recuperate, Una is devastated. She cuts off her hair, buys an outfit of boy's clothing, and runs down to the wharf to find a ship that will take her as cabin boy. With her eyes well trained from days spent in the lighthouse, she proves her worth as a lookout aboard the Sussex. Her first time at the top of a mast occasions a Melvillian description: "Up and up! How to tell you about it? You have looked from the edge of a cliff? Climbed your own trees? Those efforts suggest a whiff of rigging-climbing -- as the volatile oil from an orange peel suggests the full flavor of its ecstatic juice." Naslund has drunk deep from the well of Melville's prose in preparation for this novel, and this shines though in her rich, extravagant language.

Here begins the heart of the novel -- Una's adventures at sea. It is here that she comes of age and here that she meets Captain Ahab. Many other characters from Melville's novel appear. Tashtego and Daggoo are found jumping from their unsuccessful whaler to join on to the Pequod as she pulls into port. We find Pip nearly burned to death in a house fire, then rejecting the Nantucket school for a chance to go to sea with Ahab. Even Ishmael himself appears, asserting that his name is David Pollack, but "Call me Ishmael."

Naslund uses these references to the events in Moby-Dick in interesting ways. When Ahab leaves Una behind as he sets out for another two-year voyage on the Pequod, we know that this is to be his final trip because Una sees Ishmael and Queequeg board the ship at the last minute. Using our knowledge of this outcome, Naslund turns Una's sighting of the two sailors into a dark portent. In this and many other ways, Naslund's novel successfully weaves itself into the margins of Melville's. The tremendous sacrifice made by whaling families -- of men who leave their families for two or three years at a time, return for no more than three or four months, and then set out again -- is rendered more vividly in Naslund's book. Never in Moby-Dick do we feel the numb outrage of those short, insufficient visits between voyages as we feel it in Ahab's Wife, after the Pequod departs, and Una walks homeward, reviewing all the things she hasn't told her husband.

Una's suffering is the blood of this wonderfully written novel. As she gropes and strides (and writes, for the novel is her memoir) her way through the numerous tragedies that befall her (Ahab's death is only the beginning), her determination to cherish her pockmarked life is as moving as it is vast. And for those who make it to the end of this 666-page masterpiece, the novel's conclusion holds a clever surprise.

—Jacob Silverstein

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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Ahab's Wife
Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel

Chapter One

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet, looking up—into the clouds—I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark; I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb's ear. I see a zaggy shadow in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab's temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab's heart.

That pull of cloud—tapered and blunt at one end and frayed at the other—seems the cottony representation of his ivory leg. But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue—that would be no kind, reconstructive vision; no, intact, lofty and sailing, though his shape is changeable. Yesterday, when I tilted my face to the sky, I imaged not the full figure but only his cloudy head, a portrait, glancing back at me over his shoulder.

What weather is in Ahab's face?

For me, now, as it ever was in life, at least when he was looking at me alone and had no other person in view, his visage is mild—with a brightness in it, even be it a wild, white, blown-about brightness. Now, as I look at those billowed clouds, I see the Pequod. I half-raise my hand to bid good-bye, as it was that last day from the east-most edge of Nantucket Island, when, with a wave and then a steadfast, longing look, till the sails were only a white dot, and then a blankness of ocean—then—a glitter— I wished his ship and him Godspeed.

Nantucket! The home where first I found my body, my feetnot so much being pulled into this sandy beach as seeking downward, toes better than roots; then, my mind, built not to chart this blue swell of heaving ocean, but the night sky, where the stars themselves, I do believe, heave and float and spin in fiery passions of their own; Nantucket!—home, finally, of my soul, found on a platform eight-by-eight, the wooden widow's walk perched like a pulpit atop my house. These three gears of myself—body, mind, and soul—mesh here on this small island—Nantucket! Then, why, when I look into the mild, day sky, do the clouds scramble, like letters in the alphabet, and spell not Nantucket, but that first home, Kentucky? And those clouds that did bulge with the image of Ahab show me the map of that state, flat across the bottom and all billowed at the top? I did not consult Ahab about my decision to spend my pregnancy in a rough Kentucky cabin with my mother, instead of staying in the gracious home of a captain's wife on Nantucket. But I wrote him, of course, and sent the letter after him on the ship called the Dove, so he could imagine me aright. That time spent with my mother outdoors in the sweet summer and golden Kentucky autumn was augmented by our indoor companionship of sewing baby smocks and cooking and reading again those great works of literature my mother had brought with her to the wilderness, green-bound books I had read as a child or she had read to me.

Sometimes my mother and I stood and looked at our faces together in the oval mirror she had brought with her from the East. Along with her library chest of books, the mirror with its many-stepped molding distinguished our frontier cabin from others. Thus, elegantly framed, my mother and I made a double portrait of ourselves for memory, by looking in the mirror.

When in early December the labor began but tried in vain to progress, my mother went from our cabin, driving the old mare in the black buggy through a six-inch crust of snow, for the doctor. In my travail, I scarcely noticed her leaving. When my mother did not come home and did not come home, and the pains were near unbearable and the chill was creeping across the cabin floor and into my feet as I paced, I grasped the feather bed from my bunk and flung it atop her bed. In desperation, between spasms, I gathered all the gaudy quilts in the house, and then leaving the latchstring out so that I would not have to venture from my nest when she returned, I took to my childbirth bed. There, softness of two mattresses comforted me from beneath and warmth of myriad quilts, a cacophony of colors, warmed me from above, but still I worked my feet and legs and twisted my back.

Despite the heat of my labor, I could feel my nose turning to ice, long and sharp as a church steeple all glazed with frost. Parsnip! I thought of; frozen and funny—a vegetable on my face! I chortled and then prayed, wondering if prayer and laughter gurgled up, sometime, from the same spring. Let nose be parsnip, parsnip be steeple, steeple be nose-whatever that protuberance, it is frozen to the very cartilage. Warm it! Save me, gods and saints! Wild and crazed by pain, my thoughts leaped about in antic dance, circling one picture after another. Nose! Steeple! Parsnip! My desperate, laughing prayer from within that quilted hump below its parsnip was only that I should be delivered and nothing at all for the welfare of the rest of the world. I wanted to wait for my mother's return and I was afraid because I had little idea of how to catch the baby. So even as I prayed, I prayed against myself, that time would not pass nor take me any closer to the port of motherhood. I thought of Ahab, as if his ship were wallowing, going neither forward nor drifting back but immobile in a confused sea.

Copyright © 1999 Sena Jeter Naslund

Ahab's Wife
Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel
. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Brett Lott
Ahab's Wife is an epic tour de force, and deserves its rightful place next to Melville's classic. Ambitious, powerful, heartbreaking, and transcendent at once, Una Spenser's tale of a life fully lived gives us what we crave: a compelling story beautifully told. This is a great American novel.
Elizabeth Renker
Ahab's Wife joins a distinguished tradition of literary works inspired by Moby-Dick. Sena Jeter Naslund's homage to Melville is steeped in his work and at the same time explores a world that Melville left largely uncharted: the world of woman's experience in nineteenth-century America. She weaves a richly imagined tapestry of historical details, compelling characters, literary history, metaphysics, and a gripping plot. Ahab's Wife is a riveting novel.
Laurie Robertson-Lorant
Based on 19th century sources and peopled with a rich array of fictional, mythic and historical characters, this ambitious novel is a kind of technicolor dream quilt that turns Moby-Dick inside out and stitches it back together....Harrowing, poignant and comical by turns, Ahab's Wife is an audacious romp through mid-19th century New England history that is amply informed by both scholarship and imagination. A spanking good read.
Gail Godwin
Ahab's Wife is a worthy female companion to Moby-Dick and a tour de force in its own right.
Wally Lamb
Line up the literary prizes. Rendered in language both lush and luminous, Ahab's Wife is sustenance for the mind and soul.
Elizabeth Renker
Ahab's Wife joins a distinguished tradition of literary works inspired by Moby-Dick. Sena Jeter Naslund's homage to Melville is steeped in his work and at the same time explores a world that Melville left largely uncharted: the world of woman's experience in nineteenth-century America. She weaves a richly imagined tapestry of historical details, compelling characters, literary history, metaphysics, and a gripping plot. Ahab's Wife is a riveting novel."

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Ahab's Wife 4 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 125 reviews.
CathyB More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this novel. At times, I found certain scenes/chapters to be a bit tedious; however, for the most part, it was quite enjoyable. Ms. Naslund was able to create a memorable character and story that can stand on their own. Moby Dick, what is that? Well, there did need to be the slightest mention of a wife in the original classic in order for this novel to be believable. The idea was original and the plot held true to the events of Moby Dick. I found it satisfying to hear about the events from a woman's perspective. Any lengthy discription of whaling would have put me to sleep instantly. This is a beautifully written novel and would be perfect for a book club discussion. I recommend this book for those who like historical fiction (whether or not they have read Moby Dick).
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Ahab's Wife' is a gracefully written book that is composed of raw emotion. It is set in an interesting period of American history and is beautifully written and described. Una's character is wonderful and her harrowing experiences in such a crude era show us the limit of human suffering. But it are her loves that prove stronger than pain. The narration and dialogue are spectacular and much of the writing shines in the descriptions. I love this book so much and I have probably read it 7 or 8 times. Read it yourself - or- share the love and lend it to your friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved Moby Dick when I read it a long time ago, but I remember that Ahab came across as a very angry and very troubled man. This author gives another picture of Ahab through the eyes of his wife and family and paints an engrossing picture of the wife's life before and after Ahab. It reads like 19th century literature which I appreciate and can't find much anymore. I particularly liked the descriptions of the lighthouse island, the coast and the sea.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up after reading the reviews posted here. I found this book TEDIOUS!!! It was too long and very boring. Life is to short to read bad books. Don't bother with this one.
JKrickettt More than 1 year ago
I recently decided to read the classics of old and having never read Moby Dick, I thought that I would perhaps try Ahab's Wife as a way of merging classic with modernism. The chapters are too tedius as naslund waste time on redundant wording. Each chapter seems to be as plain as the next. There is no excitement and the book has made me feeling one with the whales...diving deeper only to eascape it. However, I don't like to start something and not finish but this book is a slow read for me. It has potential but unforunately Naslund has cast doubts on me to ever read Moby Dick as well.
dollynotlolly More than 1 year ago
This was one of those books whose characters still live in my mind, a good month after I finished the book. The story is highly creative, is peppered with surprises, and uses a great setting. I highly recommend this book to women who like brave heroines, don't like predictability and don't mind a little quirkiness. I found it charming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made me want to go back a read Moby Dick again. A whole new take on Ahab.
MaddieHj More than 1 year ago
I adore this book and consider it a perfect companion to Moby Dick, my favorite classic. I love the fact that Naslund took one small mention of a wife and child from Moby Dick and fleshed out an entire character with a lifetime of incredible experiences. Her narrative gives us compassion for Ahab, insight into life on the ocean and the frontier, and a first-row view of the contemporary issues facing women and society in the 19th century. It's beautifully and memorably written. My daughter read, and I reread, Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife together last summer as our "summer reading project" and had wonderful discussions around both books. I don't reread many books -- too many on my list! -- but this is one I would be happy to pick up again every year.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was almost a very good book. Concept of revealing the female side of the whaling community life is great, and as a historian I see the familiarity with serious professional research (on women's lives, commonness of male bisexuality) that underlies the fiction. Plot is great, but the 'poetic' language is too heavy-handed. And overall, I was never allowed to forget that this was a commentary on Melville - the story doesn't quite take off on its own.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this novel to be excellent. The author had an incredible talent for making her words and thoughts flow nicely with almost a poetic nature. The storyline was excellent and really gave me a lot of history ( I hate reading straight forward history ) during this era. I did not realize there were extraordinary women of this era such as UNA and most of her female friends in the book.....real pioneers. This book was probably one of the best books I have ever read for it's literary content and style of writing....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is too dry, told in the first person but without passion
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A powerful story and beautifully written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very long story, but oh so well written. Highly recommend!
numba4 More than 1 year ago
a story you'll never forget!
Starluv9227 More than 1 year ago
This book was such a joy to read. I thought about this book when I wasn't reading it and couldn't get back to read it fast enough. Although this book is long, it teaches you things about History as well as Fictional characters as well such as Moby Dick. This book is very well written and makes you feel like you are part of the book. I cried and laughed and it made you think about what it was like back in the early 1900's to be a woman, who not only fought with her self about independence, but the right to do things that man can do as well. It uplifts your spirit about how people helped "Black" people during the times of slavery and it helps you understand the way women felt when their men left on their whaling ships for years on end.
Anonymous 8 months ago
I read this book after it was recommended by a coworker. I really wanted to like it. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and as a native of Massachusetts I thought I'd appreciate the setting in old time Nantucket. Unfortunately, I didn't really start to enjoy this book until about page 300. The first half of the story dragged and was quite boring. However, I read quickly though the second half of the book and enjoyed the characters. I don't feel like I wasted my time reading this, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Melisan More than 1 year ago
I wanted to gallop through this book because the story was compelling, and slowly savor it because it held such gorgeous language. This was a lovely story and I will be looking up more by this author.
Dakotamouse More than 1 year ago
I have 100 pages left. This could have benefited from more aggressive editing. The constant liberal preaching is tedious. I like the history and the glimpse into the whaling industry but if this is the author's style I won't be trying anymore of her works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book! Very well written - visualizations are outstanding. I felt like I was there with the characters. Def recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel is so well written that it invites comparison to some of the greatest classics in American literature. It really is several novels woven seamlessly together as one. I enjoyed it immensely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too bad I bought the book before I realized how long it is. Never even started it. I want a book to entertain me, or enlighten me. Not own me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Didnt have enough trouble getting hit by lightning and bit by a white whale he has this second wife to contend with. Surprising that the third movie remake of moby dick brings in the wife as deeply religious who fears her husband will pay for his lost faith if he ever had any and lazaras prediction is made to her and not ishmael. in movie had several children a real soap opera everything but the kitchen sink buska