When characters’ inner dialogues are crafted with compassion and attention-to-detail, as those in Daughters of Nantucket are, readers can even see themselves in mid-19th century women living in an east coast island town.
Daughters of Nantucket: A Novel by Julie Gerstenblatt, Mira Books
Julie Gerstenblatt quit her job as a middle school English teacher to pursue her dream of publishing a novel. Her dedication pays off in this fully realized historical fiction novel that follows three women in Nantucket, a small town where most all lives intersect intimately—out of ambition, out of necessity, and out of love. These three main characters all face internal and societal conflicts relating to race, sexuality, and obligation in the days leading up to the Great Fire of 1846. Eliza struggles to feed her children while trying to keep up appearances as an upper-middle class wife of a whaler who has been at sea for nearly four years. Meg, pregnant with her second child and fighting to desegregate the local schools, finds herself also clashing with the community after her husband Benjamin asks to move his cobbler business to a vacant shop on Main Street. And Maria (a fictional version of Maria Mitchell, a real person) is an erudite, twenty-seven-year-old astronomer in charge of the island Atheneum who raises her voice to denounce racism in the town but otherwise must hide her attraction to her astronomy assistant Linley.
Personal, political, and social arguments intertwine throughout the book as more characters are pulled into the plot. And Gerstenblatt thoughtfully handles these difficult topics. Yet, this story is still easy to follow, emotionally replete, and with a satisfying ending that doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, efficiently keeping readers thinking about the characters and their futures.
I've absorbed a lot of stories in the past year in the form of movies, TV shows, and books, and though there’s quite a few that slip through the cracks of my memory, there’s none I didn’t enjoy while immersed in their worlds. However, it’s those that stick with me—for days, months, or years after—that I consider stories worth sharing, cherishing, and re-visiting. Those are the ones I will call my favorites. Fragments of scenes and narratives will reappear in my mind again and again, like remembering a meaningful event or a particularly evocative dream. In those moments of remembering, I visualize both the physical characters but also, less concretely, their essences formed by insight into their thoughts. This sensitivity to characters' specific ideas, desires, and worries is what makes great novels so immersive, and it is what makes each one feel so new (so novel) yet recognizable in their portrayal of humans' idiosyncrasies. When characters’ inner dialogues are crafted with compassion and attention-to-detail, as those in Daughters of Nantucket are, readers can even see themselves in mid-19th century women living in an east coast island town.
Remembering my favorite stories feels like remembering lived experiences. And because they’re told in the context of real events, well-written historical fiction stands out to me. For these reasons, the Author’s Note made me so happy to read. Gerstenblatt’s connection to Nantucket and her interest in what was only “a whisper” about the great fire in Away Offshore by Nathaniel Philbrick led to a unique discourse on a community so dependent on each citizen yet so easily divided, a theme we in 2023, 177 years later, can closely relate to. The lived experiences of the characters might not be directly tied to a historical figure, but at their core, they are humanizing and enlivening events that we, hundreds of years later, could easily forget existed or could feel detached from.