Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.
The Stars Are Fire is typical Anita Shreve fare: a simple story about a woman trapped by circumstance and societal expectations who must find a way to seek happiness against the odds.
This might sound clichéd or even naff, but in Shreve’s capable hands it’s not, for Shreve is a terrific storyteller and this novel — her 19th — features all the things I love about her work: strong female characters traversing moral minefields and all told in a fast-paced, economical yet elegant prose style.
Summer fire risk
The story is set on the coast of Maine in 1947 during an unusually hot summer. Grace Holland is married to a quantity surveyor, Gene, with whom she has a troubled relationship: his brooding silences and bullying bedtime practices make her desperately unhappy, but what is she to do? The sexual revolution hasn’t happened yet, she has two young children and a third on the way, and she’s never worked outside the home so is entirely reliant on her husband for financial support.
When wildfires break out further along the coast, Gene heads off to help fight them with his colleagues. But when the wind unexpectedly changes and sweeps the fire back towards the Holland’s neighbourhood, Grace finds herself in mortal danger. Grabbing the children, she flees to the beach, where they spend the night buried in the sand to protect themselves from the deadly flames.
This is where the story takes a tragic turn: the Holland’s house is wiped out in the fire, Grace loses her unborn baby and Gene never returns, but whether he has died in the fire or taken the opportunity to do a runner isn’t clear.
Okay, so this all sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Domestic abuse. Tick. A community tragedy. Tick. A missing husband. Tick. A dead baby. Tick. A home burned to the ground. Tick.
And things for Grace and her children get far worse before they get better.
But the story isn’t without hope, because over the next few months Grace painstakingly builds a new life for herself without her husband’s support. She learns to drive a car, lands herself a new job and finds herself falling in love with a new man.
Yet Grace’s new-found happiness is tested to the limit in many different ways and it’s when she least expects it that it threatens to come crumbling down around her feet.
As ever, Shreve’s storytelling is on fire in this book (pun fully intended). The narrative burns with a fierce intensity (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and all the characters, including Grace’s bullying husband, are drawn with enormous sympathy.
And while the plot machinations are entirely predictable (if not downright obvious), I found myself swept up in Grace’s life — I was cheering her on even when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the quietly sentimental story that unfolds over 250 pages.
The Stars Are Fire — due for publication in the UK on 2 May — probably won’t set your world alight (sorry!), but it is perfect escapist fiction, the kind that mixes suspense with romance, tragedy and human frailty, and keeps you wholly absorbed the entire time you’re reading it. It’s a fine novel, one that is sure to impress existing fans and perhaps garner the author a bevy of new ones.