Vanessa V. Friedman
October 08, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Remember the wife of Ahab, the ivory-legged man of literary legend? No? Not a surprise; she barely figured in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, thus allowing Naslund to create a character from scratch. The result: Una, a curly-haired, feisty slip of a Kentucky backwoods girl, who leaves her mother and Bible-thumping father at 14 for life with her aunt and uncle, only to discover the lure of the sea on their island. She soon disguises herself as a cabin boy and ships out on a whaler. After many adventures, she meets Ahab, and though their marriage doesn’t last long (blame Moby Dick), it leaves Una with a child and an independent existence. Surprisingly absorbing, if occasionally hackneyed, Ahab’s Wife makes an art out of hokeyness.

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