For those lovers of “Moby Dick” and Herman Melville, “The Whale: A Love Story” is a delightful and compelling work of historical fiction that peers into the life of Melville during the period in which he was writing “Moby Dick,” struggling with debts, and had a close relationship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, prior knowledge of “Moby Dick” and Melville isn’t really required to read the book. I knew very little about Melville and Hawthorne as authors going into this and I have not read “Moby Dick,” and my knowledge of it primarily comes from cultural osmosis. As such, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in queer history, historical romances, and maritime or literary history.
Melville as a character, is wholly relatable and horribly embarrassing in equal measures. If we were to rate him on the scale of distinguished/functional/disaster gay, he would be solidly disaster. You want both to cheer him on in his work and pursuit of Hawthorne’s friendship and smack him over the head and beg him to please use some common sense.
It is a marked difference from Hawthorne’s own personality, which is reserved and measured even in his exuberance. Hawthorne is also very much influenced by a Puritanical upbringing and struggles to place his feelings for Melville alongside his feelings for his wife.
This is the only book I think I’ve ever read where I was begging the main couple not to kiss, because I could tell that it would spell disaster. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t give us a thorough and beautiful portrayal of Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship though, it’s just a very 19th century gay relationship and all the caution and trepidation that could entail. All of the tender longing and yearning is there from both parties (though we get rather more from Melville, since it is his point of view), and we are given a delightful ending that had me pressing my face into my book to muffle my quiet screaming.
The epilogue (which should most definitely be read) gives us a look into the research done by the author, and it was fascinating how he worked to incorporate the letter correspondence between Melville and Hawthorne that was interspersed throughout the chapters. Most of the letters from Melville to Hawthorne (with a handful of exceptions) are real letters. However, none of Hawthorne’s are, because we don’t have any of his letters from this period. What the author did instead, was use the letters of Hawthorne’s we do have to create the fictional replies we see from Hawthorne in the book, which I think is a terribly clever way to get around the missing letter problem.
A genuinely lovely and tender piece of fiction, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested. The book can be found in a variety of locations online, including new and used through Bookshop.org.