As I wrote about a few years ago, it took me a long, long time to come around to enjoying Moby-Dick, the now celebrated tome that destroyed its author’s career when it was published. I left off in the middle of a re-read, but Mark Beauregard’s new novel, The Whale: A Love Story*, has me wishing my copy of Melville’s book weren’t packed away right now.
Known to many of his nineteenth-century readers as “the man who lived among the cannibals,” the summer of 1850 finds Herman Melville struggling with a new book, an adventure story about two unlikely friends who set off on a whaling voyage. The book isn’t taking shape the way he’d like, and since creditors have made his family’s home in New York uncomfortable, he and his wife Lizzie are staying in the Berkshires.
When he meets reclusive Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated) during a rain- and champagne-soaked picnic, Melville’s life—both personal and creative—takes a turn for the unexpected. Infatuated with the handsome older writer and spurred by his advice and presence to press into strange and fantastical waters in his novel, Melville spends money he doesn’t have buying a farm close to Hawthorne’s cottage, convinced that he’s found his muse—and love.
While I wasn’t convinced by the novel’s proposal regarding Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship (and coincidentally, there’s a apparently a new biography of Melville just out that puts forward a different candidate as Melville’s muse and love interest), I liked the audacity of the theory. Mr. Beauregard undertook extensive research as he wrote the novel (the book is studded with Melville’s actual letters to Hawthorne), which shines in its depictions of everyday life in 1850s Massachusetts, its exploration of passion in its many facets, and especially in its portrayal of the mercurial, exuberant, infuriating Melville.
I’d recommend The Whale to Melville fans, Hawthorne fans, literary friendship enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a LGBTQ spin on literary history. If none of those rings your bell, have a gander at these passages I loved:
Melville’s doubts about the early draft of Moby-Dick:
He couldn’t imagine the genteel, middle-class ladies of America flocking to buy a novel in which frenzied sharks devoured whale gore and seagulls plucked each other’s eyes out fighting for the scraps—and middle-class ladies were the only people who bought books.
On his frenzied revision of the book:
He slopped the pigs, scattered seeds for the chickens, and gave his horse oats; and then he climbed the stairs to his study with a cup of tea and sat scribbling madly about the open seas for six or eight hours in a row, trying to keep the different versions of his story straight in his head. He was writing his whaling adventure at Hawthorne now, channeling all of his frustrations and affections, which he could express to no one in real life, into the operatic desires of his fishy allegory.
Christmas in the Berkshires:
The snow transformed the landscape, at first pleasantly erasing the grass and the dirt and the sharp edges and corners of the house and barn; but then, as the flakes became heavier and bigger and fell faster and faster, the air itself turned white, a blank wall against which Herman’s longing was just another ghost.
I marked a half dozen more passages to return to; there’s some very fine writing in The Whale, and I’d be delighted to read Mr. Beauregard’s next book.
What’s your favorite novel about a well known author?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.
16 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: The Whale: A Love Story, by Mark Beauregard”
I don’t really love Moby Dick, although a few years ago I finally made myself read it. But if you can’t get to your book, what about the Moby Dick Big Read? http://www.mobydickbigread.com/
I actually got restarted in trying to read the whole book by listening to it a chapter at a time. Then I went out and bought a copy.
I’ve had my eye on The Whale for a while, despite my feelings about Moby Dick. I guess I should look for a copy.
That’s a great idea!
Lots of really interesting voices recording chapters.
I’ve had my eye on this, because I love novels about authors. But, now I’m wondering if it will bother me not to know for sure Melville’s true relationship with Hawthorne (or some other person)? Did that bother you?
I love the cover! And, I really love that picture of the wave in your header!!
It didn’t bother me, but it would have if the novel were about an author I’m more invested in (like Jane Austen or Shakespeare). The wave photo is via Unsplash–they’re an awesome site full of free-to-use photos.
Good to keep in mind, for if I’m ever feeling more adventurous…
My fav book like this is Frances and Bernard, based on Flannery O’Conner and Robert Lowell. I get the feeling you didn’t love this, but that one passage about the longing and the ghost. .. yessss… ☺ love that header too!
I loved Frances and Bernard! This book made me curious and I was interested, but I didn’t fully buy into the relationship, I guess. Still quite enjoyable.
One of my favorites too!
Thank you – I think this book is what may finally motivate me to read Moby Dick.
So worth it. It’s really phenomenal.
I never could make it through Moby-Dick, even though it was assigned reading for a college course on Hawthorne and Melville! I like reading around the book, though (stuff like In the Heart of the Sea). In that class we talked a lot about homoerotic themes in both authors. The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck kind of hints at the same thing, though she makes Melville sound more like a nuisance/stalker. I generally love fictionalized biographies of writers, so I’m keen to find this one.
I have a review copy of this on my kindle. I picked it up, but it didn’t get into it in the 30 or so pages I read. I set it aside…and haven’t returned. Yet. You’ve convinced me to at least give it a second glance.
(It was part of a what seemed like a whale themed spring – The Rathbones, Rush Oh!, The North Water, and this one.)
I’m on the fence about trying The North Water, I have to say. But I loved Rush Oh!. Hope you are feeling well, by the way!
The North Water is VERY dark compared to Rush Oh!
So I’ve heard, which is why I’m on the fence . . .