Saturday 7 October 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Daughters of Nantucket, Julie Gerstenblatt (2023)

Welcome back to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first. For the second time in this series, following my review of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013) in 2019, we’re back in nineteenth-century Nantucket. This time I’m reviewing Julie Gerstenblatt’s 2023 Daughters of Nantucket, which follows several women’s lives on the island in the lead up to and aftermath of the Great Fire of 1846.

Eliza is a whaling captain’s wife, who’s struggling financially and emotionally following her husband’s long absence at sea. Maria is an astronomer and curator, who’s hiding her sexuality. And Meg is a pregnant Black businesswoman, who’s still fighting for equality, although she was born free.

Gerstenblatt uses the three women’s different perspectives and experiences to bring the island as it was during this period to life. Only one of them (Maria) shares a name with a true historical figure, although all three were born out of research. The stakes of the interwoven narratives were high and the women’s personalities were distinct enough to maintain reader interest throughout.

What I most enjoyed about the book were the details that were clearly part of Gerstenblatt’s research. I’ve visited the Whaling Museum on the island and so it was great to see the true story of Nantucket’s commercial and social history told there reinvented in fiction. I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, with the countdown to the fire ramping up tension and keeping us guessing about what would happen to our characters. 

What I found less successful was the engagement with social justice themes, especially related to race and sexuality. There is so much rich history in Nantucket about the island’s Black population, but the characters in Daughters of Nantucket at times seemed to speak with twenty-first-century voices, rather than embodying the attitudes of progressive islanders in the 1840s. 

All in, though, Gerstenblatt’s love for Nantucket and its history shines through in this entertaining read. If you want to lie to yourself that it’s still summer, consider picking up a copy and taking an imaginative trip to the beaches of New England. 

What novel would you like me to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to stay up to date with all my reviews? Make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter here.

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