The Stars are Fire
Anita Shreve
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The Stars are Fire
Anita Shreve
256 pages
April 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Stars are Fire.

Shreve’s novel unfolds in a tousled web of love, passion, and marriage, despite devolving into a cliched fairytale ending. Like a gentle snowstorm, The Stars are Fire languidly falls around the reader, uncurling us into the post-war life of Grace Holland, who lives in the small coastal town of Hunts Beach with her husband, Gene, and two children, Tom and Claire. Grace’s brush with passion for Aiden, a handsome concert pianist, signifies a change in her love life and a reckoning in her marriage to Gene.

Grace’s journey begins long before the forest fires ravage much of the Maine coast in the terrible summer of 1947, when the distant smell of wood smoke and the night sky’s red glow is manifested in the news that numerous fires are out of control. Throughout these early years, Grace is largely happy with her harmonious existence in a shingled bungalow two blocks for the ocean with her two beautiful children and faithful Gene, who works hard at his job and doesn’t resist chores at home. Although relations between Grace and Gene’s mother, Merle, are not all they could be, Grace does her best to keep the peace.

Luckily Grace has her neighbor Rosie to confide in. But after Rosie embarrassingly divulges to Grace that she and her husband, Tim, “make love at least once a day,” Grace is transported to a universe before she met Gene: “before lies became less certain and a little frightening.” Rosie’s revelation leads Grace to ask herself why it is that she can’t tell Gene how she feels about their intimacy. Thus begins Grace’s long journey to embrace an existence that begins in Maine’s bright, sunny days and ends with a coastal disaster that will physically and symbolically consume much of Grace’s life.

As the fire ravages the land, quickly advancing towards the ocean--and with Gene away working the firebreak--Grace is forced to save her children anyway she can. While many of her neighbors stay put to protect their property, Grace instead lies on the beach at the edge of the water, trying to protect Tom and Claire as the flames race and dance over the top of them. In these middle sections, Shreve writes both with a sense of suspense and with a delicate sense of loss. We see Grace fanatically searching for Gene, Rosie, Tim, and her mother, Marjorie. From the temporary shelters to the town’s message boards, Shreve’s heroine is painted in broad brush strokes in a life suddenly fractured by the destruction of Hunts Beach. In danger of losing her backbone, Grace ensconces herself in Merle’s old Victorian house, left abandoned when she died. The silence of the old house is at first haunting--that is, until she stumbles across Aiden, who seduces her with his delicate renditions of Chopin. In Aiden, Grace sees a fresh start as she begins to experience all of the intimacies that his music has to offer.

The novel flows along in typical Shreve style; she is a master at creating a typically intimate scene. As the ever-present ghost of Gene hangs over Grace, front and center is Grace’s newfound ability to tap into her inner resources. During the course of the story, she becomes a sort of feminist, trapped in an era dominated by men's expectations that a woman's job is to quietly and selflessly support her husband. Grace’s own identity, as well as her pursuit of fulfillment--whether through work or through sex--is seen as a trivial and unimportant matter. In an added twist, it is Merle’s hidden collection of expensive jewelry that ties Grace’s journey together and enables her to pretty much try and remake her life in the face of such masculine adversity.

Tracking the fragile dividing line of memory and circumstance, Grace proves to be the ultimate survivor, working in a kindly doctor’s office and learning to drive a new car while supporting Tim, Claire, and Marjorie. Part of Grace’s journey is learning to acknowledge the painful reality of Gene’s loss as well as being soothed and loved by generous Aiden, the two destined to be together even though they have little control over their precarious circumstances.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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