My main quibbles with the book lie heavily in what I like in media as a person. Though I'm not directly opposed to romance and quite like romantic plotlines in books, there's a heavy difference between a book featuring romance and a book ABOUT a romance and it's the latter that I've had long standing problems with. So when it comes down to it, a lot of the criticisms I felt fervently about the book lay heavy on that genre, and, though for me it isn't excused by such, I imagine it could be for other people.
The book is written well. The prose is well crafted, not quite as flowery or as dense as Melville could be but flowery enough for setting and easy enough for enjoyment. I was surprised to find the book as easy a read as I did, being that I was expecting (being in Melville's mind for the most part) the book to recreate Melville's style. It does to an extent, but again, doesn't quite meander as much, doesn't quite sink into its metaphors as much. I've read physically shorter books that have taken me longer to read, and I think that, with my major problems with this book aside, that reflects nicely on the book as a whole.
So, my feelings on the book, which I read from cover to cover, was that I didn't like it. But, as I stated before, I felt like I didn't like it because I didn't like romance novels not because the book was necessarily bad, but all the tropes that frustrate me in romance novels are present here were not stopped from provoking in me its frustrations in the goddamn slightest. I picked this book up because I was frustrated with reading heterosexual romances at all - I've been reading a lot this year and they've all settled into kind of a bland white noise to me in terms of variety and I was desperately hoping that the Whale would inject some color into it. It's annoying that my normal reading cycle is so empty of this that I have to go out of my way to seek it out, but that's just an annoyance of my everyday life being queer and wanting something that couldn't be made into an Avril Lavigne song.
Another thing before I get started, I've been getting a lot of shock and some astonished hilarity at the idea of Hawthorne and Melville together when I talk about this book, which has also been frustrating me, because in a time where it was so unfashionable to be gay or single, are we supposed to assume that all marriages at the time meant that someone was straight? And at a time where being gay was so volatile, is it all that surprisingly there are rarely notes and letters declaring their sexualities? So most of this book is conjecture, but no moreso than the assumption that these people are straight at all anyway.
Anyway, I disliked Melville and Hawthorne's interactions. It immediately gets reduced into an impulse of feeling as opposed to a growth, which is frustrating considering that the possibility is there. But where the book could have enriched itself with the conversations of Hawthorne and Melville's contemplations and mind workings which develop into affection, the book edits them out when it could have built their relationship. Instead, the reader is treated to the idea that, after an evening of discussion, Melville is already convinced that he is in love with Hawthorne and determines to move to the Berkshires to be near him, essentially sacrificing his entire family to do so.
I say "convinced that he is in love" because that's what it appeared to me - not that the book itself seems to notice that failing enough to deconstruct it. No, Melville converses with Hawthorne for a few hours, falls in love, destroys his life, and that's .... romantic??? I disliked it in Marius Pontmercy sort of barely remembering to introduce himself TWO MINUTES INTO A SONG WHERE HE'S ALREADY DECLARED HIS UNDYING LOVE, and I dislike it here. I dislike it everywhere without some sort of self awareness on the idea, but typically there is none, and in the book it's just taken totally seriously as proof of his love. Where the book could have put more deconstruction of Melville's character as a man of impulse with little profit, he is treated like a put-upon man trying to make it in a difficult world. He moves to the country with little to no provocation and then seems to blame everyone for telling him that it's a stupid idea. It would have given me something if Hawthorne suggested he try out the Berkshires to air out his thinking in regards to The Whale, and again, watch their relationship move from admiration to affection BUT THAT JUST ISN'T WHAT HAPPENS.
And the book concludes with me feeling like the person I hate most of all is Melville, but the book is so focused on THEIR LOVE that it doesn't take into account what a phenomenally terrible person Melville is (in the book. He may have also been a cad in real life and it's a high possibility knowing authors of the time period, but without some biography reading I have no idea if this reflects Melville historically). He uproots his family to move to be near Hawthorne and then he proceeds to pressure and be pathetic when Hawthorne rejects and then dares to STAND BY HIS DECISION. Hawthorne catches early on as to where their relationship might be heading to, and instead of a conversation about it, Melville proceeds to throw a huge fit and spends a huge portion of the book disregarding Hawthorne's wishes, despite Hawthorne repeatedly and consistently making his feelings and choice clear.
Partway into the book I wondered if Hawthorne liked Melville at all, and Melville was doing the whole "projecting his wants and wishes onto the object of affection in intense denial" but no, it's clear that Hawthorne does love Melville but is a product of his time AND A DECENT HUMAN BEING enough to consider the difficulties he might foist upon his wife and family if he actually reciprocated Melville. But instead of Melville understanding this and perhaps taking it as a hint to reflect on things in regards to his own life and marriage, he just keeps pursuing Hawthorne despite, and truly gives such little thought to his wife and son that that in itself would be enough for me to dislike Melville if it weren't also compounded by his ignorance and denial of Hawthorne's wishes. There's a scene later in the book after Hawthorne rejects Melville's amor again after a night where they almost consummate their relationship, and Melville proceeds to make a huge scene in front of Hawthorne's family and when Hawthorne resorts to cruel words to expel Melville, forcing him to leave with his feelings incredibly hurt, I couldn't help but think it was something he had coming and lacked such sympathy for his character that it retrospectively made me realize that Melville had been being a prick to Hawthorne as well.
It's so upsetting to me HOW MUCH potential this book had. The brief mentions and occasional reality checks of illegal distributed copyright property overseas, the comparison and competition between British and American authors (and for American authors to feel they are being taken seriously as their own works as opposed to constant comparison to the British), these could have been much more than a backdrop, but everything becomes a backdrop to Melville's unhealthy and, to me, unromantic obsession with Hawthorne. Towards the end of the book Melville has a revelation that he's been treating his son with neglect, the way his own father treated him and it lasts like two sentences and then he's thinking about Hawthorne again so again again again opportunities for character depth and growth snapped off in favor of Melville/Hawthorne again again again. No implication as to whether this will make him improve with Malcolm in the future, just something that he thinks about and then it's back to the broken record playing the honk of "I LOVE HAWTHORNE" again.
If you can defend Melville and excuse it as romantic or "that obsession/tunnel-vision/quickness of relationship was the WHOLE POINT" then this book is for you, but it certainly wasn't for me. Whatever enjoyment I could get from the book either in its philosophies into the authors or introspection on what it was to be an American author was curtailed in favor of Melville's love of Hawthorne, it overwhelms and consumes and tries to get past me as true love. I almost wanted Melville to have sex with Hawthorne, I wanted that scene to happen not as a culmination of their tension, or "finally, they are together, yay!" but because I felt like Melville would realize that his feelings for Hawthorne WERE an impulse and then at least look back and realize he ruined everything for this moment that he wanted like seeing an overpriced toy in a window and WANTING it, getting it out of the box and then losing interest. But that point just didn't exist, that awareness didn't exist and to me, it needed it desperately if the relationship was going to move as quickly as it did.
This book needed to be about twice its size and less about the love story, but it IS a "love story" and, like Melville for Hawthorne, it sacrifices everything to be "a love story" and nothing else.