7 reviews

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel
by Sena Jeter Naslund

Published: 2000-10-01
Paperback : 688 pages
50 members reading this now
16 clubs reading this now
17 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 6 of 7 members
From the opening line--"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last"--you will know that you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller and in the company of a fascinating woman hero. Inspired by a brief passage in Melville's Moby-Dick, where Captain Ahab speaks passionately of ...
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From the opening line--"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last"--you will know that you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller and in the company of a fascinating woman hero. Inspired by a brief passage in Melville's Moby-Dick, where Captain Ahab speaks passionately of his young wife on Nantucket, Una Spenser's moving tale "is very much Naslund's own and can be enjoyed independently of its source." (Newsday)

The daughter of a tyrannical father, Una leaves the violent Kentucky frontier for the peace of a New England lighthouse island, where she simultaneously falls in love with two young men. Disguised as a boy, she earns a berth on a whaling ship where she encounters the power of nature, death, and madness, and gets her first glimpse of Captain Ahab. As Naslund portrays Una's love for the tragically driven Ahab, she magnificently renders a real, living marriage and offers a new perspective on the American experience. Immediately immersed in this world, the reader experiences a brilliantly written, vibrant, uplifting novel--a bright book of life.

Ahab's Wife was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, chosen by Time magazine as one of the top five novels of 1999, selected by Book Sense as one of the top five books of the year, chosen by the New York Times as a Notable Book of 1999, and chosen as a Best Book by Publishers Weekly.

Ahab's Wife is being reprinted in Australia and England, translated into German, Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher's reading guide:

1. Ahab's Wife takes place in the early nineteenth century. In what ways is Una's story a product of the times in which she lives? In what ways are her experiences timeless?

2. Early on in Una's life, her mother instructs her, "Accept the world, Una. It is what it is" (p. 29). Does she?

3. In many ways, Ahab's Wife is a spiritual journey. What are the forces that guide Una? What is her notion of her place in the universe and how does it evolve over the course of her lifetime?

4. Una writes, "Let me assure you and tell you that I know you, even something of your pain and joy, for you are much like me. The contract of writing and reading requires that we know each other. Did you know that I try on your mask from time to time? I become a reader, too" (p. 148). Several times throughout this book, Una addresses the reader directly. What is the effect of this interchange? How do you participate and become a character in this novel?

5. Discuss Una's relationship to the sea.

6. At the most painful time in her life, when she has lost her child and her mother, Una befriends Susan. Why is this relationship so important to Una? What is it that Susan teaches her? Compare and contrast their friendship to Una's friendship with Margaret Fuller.

7. How do you react to Una's cannibalism? Was she justified in doing what she does to survive? Is Giles more culpable because he himself makes the decision and executes the other shipmates? Or is he the most courageous of all because he takes it on himself to make a terrible decision and save those he loved?

8. Throughout Ahab's Wife, Una makes reference to the works of great writers such as William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Homer. What is the effect of drawing on all these other books? How does it enhance, deepen, and expand Ahab's Wife?

9. How does Una reconcile "the inevitable animal within" (p. 256) with her spiritual aspirations?

10. Why do you think that three out of Una's four loves(Giles, Kit, and Ahab(go mad? Is this merely coincidence?

11. Throughout her life, Una explores the art of sewing. Although Maria Mitchell considers sewing to be an act and a skill that confines rather than liberates women, at one point Una supports herself with a needle and thread. Discuss the numerous ways in which images of mending, binding, and sewing inform the telling of this novel.

12. When Una is looking for icebergs on Ahab's ship, she returns his trust "with silence on the subject of a white whale and all his massive innocence" (p. 280). Has she betrayed Ahab? Why does she see the whale as innocent? After Ahab loses his leg and then his life, do you think she continues to see Moby-Dick as innocent?

13. "Beware the treachery of words, Mrs. Sparrow. They mean one thing to one person and the opposite to another" (p. 297), Ahab tells Una. Why do you think Una finally finds her vocation to be working with words?

14. "Wondering what Margaret Fuller would say to such a distinction between spiritual and moral matters, I asked the judge if he thought there was a difference" (p. 383). Do you think there is a difference?

15. Una's narrative plunges back in time, leaps ahead, and loops over itself again. Different sections are told through other characters' perspectives and through their letters. How does the narrative structure itself enact some of Una's beliefs about the world?

16. The alternate title of this book is The Star-Gazer. Why do you think Ms. Naslund chose to have an alternate title at all? What meanings does it hold?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Unusually atmospheric"by Melba G. (see profile) 02/10/11

Ahab's Wife predominately takes place on the coast of Nantucket in the hey-day of the whaling industry, and a chilly mist seems to curl off of each page. Naslund is truly one of those authors that takes... (read more)

  "A new classic"by Lori R. (see profile) 11/18/10

This is a beautifully written tale that captivated me right away--It has one of the all-time great first lines in literature. For those who appreciated Moby Dick, this is a vivid reimagining of the other... (read more)

  "Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel"by Pat K. (see profile) 11/05/10

What it was like for a woman of the times.

  "Ahab's Wife"by Sarah M. (see profile) 08/15/10

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Didn't seem as long as it was. This historic fiction gave a lot of information that was true to the island of Nantucket and the era.

  "Too Long of a Read for Book Club"by Shelley S. (see profile) 04/26/10

Somewhere in all those words there was a story but don't know if I would have even bothered to finish it if I was just reading for myself.

  "Interesting but too slow"by Vicki G. (see profile) 04/26/10

This book is interesting, but a VERY slow read. I think the author got caught up on trying to be "too literary" and forgot people are actually reading this book. There were several points where the story... (read more)

  "Ahab's Wife"by Gayle G. (see profile) 03/16/10

The strength of this woman was inspiring and her adventures thrilling. This was a great read.

  "Ahab's Wife"by Tricia G. (see profile) 08/04/09

A wonderful but wordy book. The size alone knocked out half of our book club members. Those of us who stuck with it will be meeting in a week to "pick it apart". Very discriptive writing.

... (read more)

  "A difficult read but worth some effort"by Tracey D. (see profile) 07/17/09

  "Amazing book and a lively book club discussion"by Donna N. (see profile) 03/19/09

While some of the members thought the book was overly long and sometimes too flowery and descriptive, everyone agreed that the story line and the characters were engrossing. There were so m... (read more)

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