Books: Ishmael, Meet Jane Eyre

A remarkable novel dares to take on Melville--and succeeds

You step aboard the vaulting epic Ahab's Wife (Morrow; 668 pages; $28), by Sena Jeter Naslund, and almost instantly you are in New England in 1840, a charged, visionary realm atremble with religious longings and debate. Privets are shaped like sperm whales. Inns are kept by witches. Women ask each other in passing, "What do you think of the afterlife?" Your guide through this God-racked wilderness is a classically captivating heroine, Una Spenser, drawn equally to storms and speculations.

We follow this spirited skeptic as she looks at lightning head on (in a lighthouse), escapes to sea on a whaling ship...

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