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Two questions, one dependent on the other, run through Anita Shreve’s "The Stars are Fire." If your entire world is swept away, how do you create a new home for your family? If you can muster the courage to meet that challenge, can you then create a more meaningful life for your family — and for yourself — than you had before?
Part light romance, part conquering-adversity tale, "The Stars are Fire" offers a gutsy heroine who survives Maine’s Great Fires of 1947, born of one of the worst droughts in the state's history and which devastated huge swaths of the state.
Along coastal Maine and in the fictional oceanside town of Hunts Beach, the seasons that year were marked by extremes. A spring of endless drenching rains gave way to a summer and then an autumn of searing high temperatures and cloudless skies. Shreve, a Massachusetts native and an award-winning novelist and short story writer, must have done extensive research on the Great Fires and on the local geography. The Maine landscape, and the elements of ocean and wind in that landscape, are beautifully, persuasively rendered, as vital a part of the story as any character.
Grace Holland, a 20-something mother of two young children, initially seems much like the other housewives in Hunts Beach. She progresses through her many daily chores with brisk efficiency, and takes occasional, welcome breaks to visit next door with her best friend Rosie or to bundle the kids into the stroller for a walk to her mother’s. Her husband Gene, a few years older than her, is a WWII vet, as are most of the other men in town.
And yet, Gene is not exactly like the other husbands, at least as far as Grace can tell from conversations with the blissfully married Rosie. In fact, one wonders how two such very different people got together; it’s never satisfactorily explained. Grace embraces life, Gene shuns it; Grace is from the hard-scrabble side of the tracks, Gene grew up in a mansion on a hill. Those differences might be overcome, but Gene, a man of few words during the day, in bed is either emotionally remote or physically cruel.
Then the fires start, pushing domestic difficulties to the background. At first they are distant forest infernos, well away from the coast. Then they move steadily closer, with towering flames that jump and leapfrog over and through trees. Gene and other men leave to help dig a fire break to try and save the town. But that night, in scenes written as cinematically as any in an actual movie, the conflagration engulfs Hunts Beach: It eats up the houses, explodes gas stations and drives the residents to the edge of the ocean.
Grace and her children and her mother survive, barely. They are homeless; everything they owned is gone. From here through the end of the book, this is mainly a world of women. Hostile as her mother-in-law was to Grace in life, it is in her empty mansion that Grace and her family now gratefully set up a new home. Grace is able to start a job, her first one ever, as a receptionist at the local medical clinic, only because her mother is willing to take care of the house and the kids during her long work days.
There are men, of course, yet their roles are of a supporting, not starring nature. Although each male character is effective at moving the story forward, they all seem types rather than complete people. Gene eventually returns from the missing; the fire maimed him physically, but he managed to keep his sour, vaguely menacing persona intact. Having had a glimpse of how rewarding her life could be, both professionally and personally, Grace now fears being dragged back to her thankless past.
Before Gene’s reappearance, a talented and sensitive concert pianist had sought refuge in the mansion after the fire, and the brief but real connection that had sparked between them had shown Grace what a healthy relationship could be. Grace also works with and befriends a doctor with a warm sense of humor. But conversations between Grace and any of the men seem stuck in a romance novel bandwidth. In contrast, conversations between Grace and her friend Rosie, or between Grace and her mother or other women breathe and expand.
However, one of the pleasures of reading “The Stars are Fire” is Shreve’s ability to impart an authentic feel of 1940s daily life, from how labor-intensive housekeeping used to be to the luxury (for a woman) of learning to drive a car. Laundry in all its forms — the drudgery of washing clothes by hand, the convenience of a washing machine, the lengthy task of hanging clothes and towels on a line, the modern wonder of the dryer — becomes an inspired leitmotif as Grace reshapes and remakes her life.
“The Stars are Fire” carries you reliably along from beginning to end, but it’s never a completely absorbing read. Although Shreve’s writing is lovely throughout, as Grace advances through some major, and quite brave, life decisions, I wanted to feel more urgency at each juncture. Instead, I was often too comfortable as a reader that everything would be happily resolved.
Anita Shreve is at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on Tuesday, April 18.