Mary Kingsley, who lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, has written an extremely interesting romance set in the New Bedford of the late 19th century, during the last years of the whaling industry. It is very refreshing to read a sea-faring story that centers on whaling rather than pirates! Having never read Moby Dick, I'm not in a position to judge the historical accuracy of her picture of life on a whaling ship, but her tone is serious and her descriptions feel solid and convincing.
Abigail Palmer has been reduced to penury by her father's death. Although he had been a very successful whaler and merchant and a prominent citizen of New Bedford, Benjamin Palmer's most recent investments have gone bad and his death has left Abigail with debts that can only be satisfied by selling all the family assets. Since her mother had died in childbirth, Abigail is not only penniless, but also virtually alone. Her only remaining property is a mothballed whaler, the Aquinnah, which was titled in her name as a birthday gift. As she struggles to determine how best to use this meager patrimony, two men offer her very different directions for the future.
Nathaniel Howland, fighting his way back from drunkenness and disgrace, is trying to find a ship to command in order to rehabilitate his reputation and to prove to himself that he has overcome his weakness. He offers to buy the Aquinnah from Abigail, but she refuses, instinctively clinging to the only thing she owns. Jared Swift, who grew up in the Palmer household although he is no relation to Abigail, wants to marry her. He is a successful whaling captain, and well respected in New Bedford. In fact, he was the first mate on the ship that Nat Howland lost, and earned a hero's reputation by taking command from Nat and saving the men when Nat's drunkenness left him incompetent.
Although Jared would seem to be the ideal answer to Abby's dilemma, she is wary of him and refuses his offer. When he won't take no for an answer, she forms a partnership with Nat to re-fit the Aquinnah and take her out under Nat's command. Abigail sails with the Aquinnah – and Nat, much to the consternation of friends and family in conservative New Bedford.
As the story unfolds, Abigail must come to terms with a number of feelings and unresolved issues. She is drawn to Nat, but does not believe that she is attractive enough to merit his interest. When he makes his interest clear, she believes he is merely trying to secure her ship for himself. For his part, Nat wrestles with his insecurities and with Abigail's unwelcome authority as owner of the ship. His struggle to avoid the easy solace of alcohol is constant. Jared, who has vowed that he will have Abigail in spite of her continued refusals, becomes an increasingly sinister figure, although Abigail continues to think of him as a childhood friend.
The resolution of these conflicts takes place in the Arctic whaling grounds, the scene of Nat's previous disgrace, and it is to the author's credit that the ending is neither easy nor trite. Mary Kingsley has attempted to create fully human characters whose strengths are accompanied by weaknesses that hamper their ability to function. Furthermore, she has looked deeper than the obvious in crafting her happy ending. These are people who lose, as well as win.
Which brings me to my complaints. Competent editing could have prevented some of what bothered me about this book. There are far too many instances where a bit of conversation has been repeated, or where a character's thoughts are repetitious or contradictory. For instance, when Nat first encounters Abigail after his years away, he reflects that she is pretty and wonders why he never noticed before. Twenty-five pages later he is realizing – with surprise – that she is "rather pretty. He simply hadn't noticed before." I really do expect the copy editor to notice that he has already noticed...
By far the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this book, however, must be attributed to the author. The author does not succeed in establishing a presence capable of guiding these dysfunctional characters, or the reader, through their dilemmas with confidence. Too many of these characters' conversations fail as communication, either with each other, or with their own thoughts. It becomes clear early on that Abigail is struggling with some kind of repressed memory, and because of that, is absent to her own self in important ways. But the reader, instead of observing this phenomenon, is subjected to it. Over and over again I wanted to shake this girl; instead of empathizing with her, I felt frustrated by her inability to fully participate in her own emotional life.
It could be that the failure to connect is mine, but I kept comparing this story to that of another dysfunctional couple, Alys Weston and Reginald Davenport in Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the Reformer. Troubled as Putney's characters are, I never felt that entering into their story caused me to lose my bearings the way I did in Across the Sea.
Finally, even the pacing of this story keeps the reader off balance. Over and over again, a scene between the main characters that should have been emotionally important is followed by a break of days or weeks in the action of the story, which then resumes with no resolution of the tension produced by the previous scene – leaving the reader in a constant state of "conflictus interruptus."
For these reasons I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this book, although there is much about it that I admire. This is the only title by Mary Kingsley that I have read; I'd like to try another before forming a final opinion of her work.