Review #22: Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

I hated this book.

I don’t say that very often. But seriously, I really, really, really hated this book.

And it’s weird, because I thought I was going to really like it! My mom and my aunt and a family friend (all of whom have very similar tastes in books to me) raved about it. The general consensus on Goodreads and Amazon is that people loved it. But oh my god, was this book bad.

It actually starts out okay: it’s essentially meant to be (as the title suggests) the story of the wife of Ahab, of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (bad English major confession: never read it. I know, I know…). Apparently, she’s mentioned in passing, and Naslund thought she would imagine a story for her. Good idea, right? Books like that can be kind of iffy–my go-to reference is that terrible, terrible sequel to Gone With the Wind–but if done well, they can be great.

I’d give you a basic plot summary, but that’s really difficult to do, because the plot is so convoluted. We follow a woman, Una, from pre-adolescence through adulthood as she has adventures and falls in love a lot. That’s basically it. Naslund jumps around so much, and covers so much ground, that that’s the best I can do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate ambitious novels. I like when authors take risks, and pay no mind to conventional plotlines and scope of narrative. But Naslund REALLY needed an editor. Ahab doesn’t even really become a character until halfway through the book, and by the time we meet him, everything that’s come before doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Seemingly important characters are forgotten. Genuinely compelling plotpoints are abandoned. It just doesn’t make sense.

Naslund also seems to be in love with her own voice. She’s trying so hard to be literary here that it’s painful to read. She spends pages of pages on “intelligent” musings about morality and society and religion and other such Big! Heavy! Themes! that are just lacking any kind of nuance or purpose other than to show how forward-thinking and smart the narrator, and hence the author, is. She also tries to use symbolism here, which fails miserably. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how hard it is to accomplish symbolism–it needs to be apparent to the reader, but not clunky. Guess which category Naslund falls under? Yup, her symbols are SO obvious and overwrought that it actually made me angry. Plus she has so many! I get that she was trying to be literary (which is admirable, don’t get me wrong) but come on. Try a little finesse. They were just jam-packed in for no real reason. This all came at the expense of plot development, by the way. Major events were described in passing or not even described at all! This was so incredibly frustrating, especially when what was not being described sounded significantly more interesting than what was actually on the page. Naslund also name drops basically every major literary figure in early 19th century New England, which is super obnoxious and serves no purpose other than to show us how well-read she is.

And don’t even get me started on the narrator. UGH. She was awful. Pretentious and self-absorbed and ahead of her time to the point of being laughably unrealistic. Naslund gave her no sense of perspective or the ability to be self-critical, she has no apparent flaws or moral shortcomings, and literally every character she encounters adores her and thinks she’s the absolute best thing since sliced bread. It’s just absurd. I don’t think I’ve ever dislike a narrator so much.  

Overall, it’s way too long, the prose is too pretentious, and the main character is beyond obnoxious. I struggled to finish this, and hated almost every minute of the reading experience. I seriously cannot understand how it’s gotten such good reviews.

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One thought on “Review #22: Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

  1. I couldn’t even finish this book – I read it a long time ago, expecting something interesting, and instead I just wanted her to be quiet. I was expecting a story, not a badly written philosophy/new age book.

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