The Stars Are Fire…
In October 1947, after a summer-long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village.
Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort. They spend the night frantically protecting their children and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists.
In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars.
Then the unthinkable happens and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.
I’ve been a long time fan of Anita Shreve, first coming across her work almost twenty years ago when Oprah had The Pilots Wife as her Oprah’s Bookclub Selection on a day I happened to accidentally sit down and watch it. I devoured The Pilot’s Wife and went on to purchase and read all of Anita’s backlist and once I was up to date, I automatically bought each new release as they came out. As far as being an author to follow though, it’s hard going. She doesn’t have any regularity in terms of releases and she never uses social media. You have to just wait and wait until one day you see a cover reveal on a bookshop website and then count down the long months until it finally arrives.
But when it does, it never disappoints. Not one single time have I ever been let down by Anita Shreve, and after eighteen novels, that’s no small achievement. Despite having read all of her novels, The Stars Are Fire is the first I will actually review. Perhaps this will prompt me to work my way backwards through her novels and relive the experiences. Don’t hold your breath on this though, I have a lot of other books to read first!
Anita Shreve is a master writer when it comes to pared down sentences and unflinching honesty. You are the main character when you read one of her novels. Writers call this deep point of view. Readers simply call it damn fine writing. Well, I do anyway!
In The Stars Are Fire, we are Grace Holland, a 1940s wife, a fairly typical one probably, married to a man she doesn’t know all that well with two small children, living a domestic life that is both unsatisfactory yet sufficient. This is her lot in life, she’s been brought up to not expect anything different.
Based on an actual event, I believe, fires ravage the coast of Maine in 1947 after a searing drought, and the devastation left after the fire is gone forms the springboard for this story. Grace’s life is turned completely inside out and upside down and she is faced with a desperate loss followed by a new beginning. I loved following Grace’s journey from insignificant housewife to independent survivor. Fraught with challenges, both tangible and moralistic, Grace is a character that evolves with precision and beauty. We are always privy to her thoughts, even when they cast a less than favourable light on her character, but this Anita’s winning style in action. Her characters are always authentic, without exception. And because of this, they are always entirely relatable.
The novel is very much character driven, and while there are scenes of action, particularly during the fire, it for the most part ebbs along as a character analysis on Grace and how she fits into her universe at any given time. I love this, some may not, but for me, this type of writing is literature at its very best.
The era in which the novel is set was portrayed very well. The restrictions a married woman faced, the frustrations that could lead to, the moralistic high ground tread so frequently by many yet practised by so few; all of this was articulated to perfection. There is a scene within this novel where Grace’s husband takes away her freedom in a casual manner, exerting his ‘right’ as her husband to do so, and it burns to read because that’s what life was like. So limiting, in every way, for a woman. So difficult to actually just be an individual. This is examined in detail through Grace’s experiences. Who is she now? Who does she want to be in the future? What sort of person does she want her children to see her as? Universal questions for any woman in any era, yet I feel like this period in the late 40s would have been a difficult one to seek answers in. Men were returning damaged from a terrible world war. Women were having to step back into the home after having worked during the war. Deprivation existed world wide because of the ravages of war and life was on the cusp of something new but not quite there yet. A very interesting period and one that ran parallel to this story so well.
I must make a mention of the setting, which is one I can hardly comprehend. A place of extreme seasons, where it snows by the seaside. I still find this incredible and I can barely imagine what it must look like, much less what it would be like to live in.
“Even the ocean has frozen near the shoreline, and she can see blue water only a hundred feet out to sea. These blasts from nature that make it so hard to live are sometimes beautiful. The fire, in its essence, was sublime; the quiet world around her covered in snow is as still as glass.”
I love that passage. It conveys so much. The entire novel is like this. No words are wasted, but the ones that are there are strung together like a literary symphony that you want to linger with, unhurried and immersed in its beauty. There is much within the pages of this novel that will get you thinking, about life, love, motherhood, being a woman, and even being a man in an era so different from the one we live in now.
The first and the last lines:
A spring of no spring.
But the grip on her wrist is fierce.
Everything else in between is just waiting for you.