by Anita Shreve
Historical fiction gets me every time
I can't resist a good story based on a real historical event.
Years ago, I discovered a book that used the 1873 murders of two Norwegian women off the coast of New Hampshire as the nugget at the heart of a chilling, modern-day story. The book was called The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.
I read it in 1997, and I remember it all these years later. (At the time, early in my writing career, I read The Weight of Water and longed to write a work like this.)
Recently, I read The Stars Are Fire, (2017), another Anita Shreve novel based on the 1947 drought and subsequent wildfires that wiped out more than a quarter million acres of forest and nine whole towns. The decimation of the coastal towns left residents without homes and without livelihoods, destitute and emotionally scarred.
Shreve's frequent theme
The theme Shreve focused on in The Weight of Water was this:
"If you take a woman and push her to the edge, how will she behave?"
That same theme is on full view in The Stars Are Fire.
Grace Holland has two small children and is pregnant with her third. She lives in a small home on the coast with her husband, Gene, in a cold marriage devoid of companionship or affection. Her mother-in-law dislikes her because she thinks her son "married down" to a woman with no money or class. Grace's best friend, Rosie, is a free-spirited, artsy woman whose happy marriage reminds Grace of what her own marriage lacks.
When fire rages down the coast, the men from town go off to fight it. The women are forced to run into the ocean and stoop in the frigid water shielding their children from the flames. Hours later, Grace is rescued, but she is suffering from shock and hypothermia. She loses her baby and is hospitalized for several days while her two young children are taken in by a kind family who has not been affected by the fire.
Grace is dismissed from the hospital but has no home to go back to. She must use every ounce of courage and perseverance to figure out what to do to take care of her family. Her husband is missing, she has no money, and she's weak and recovering from a miscarriage.
So what happens when you take a woman and push her to the edge?
Have you ever heard a piece of music so beautiful that it touched your soul and brought you to tears?
Grace has that moment of "feeling" music when she breaks into her wealthy, deceased mother-in-law's home only to hear classical music emanating from the grand piano. It turns out that a concert pianist needed a place to practice. So many buildings had been destroyed that he no longer had access to a piano and he climbed into the mansion to use the piano.
To make some money, Grace offers to rent him a room and access to the piano, but what begins as a tenant agreement soon grows into a loving relationship.
Grace's response to being pushed to the edge is to find a way to provide for her family. She takes a job in a doctor's office. She settles her mother and her children into her husband's empty family home. She makes income from renting space in the massive home...until her renter is offered a job as a touring pianist, and he leaves.
Filling the emotional void
Grace's emotional connection with her husband has long been absent, and she yearns for love. First, she almost finds it with her pianist. Later, she develops a friendship and a fledgling relationship with the single doctor she works for.
Working as a receptionist in the medical office, Grace finds she has a talent for connecting with patients, organizing details, and providing support for an overwhelmed doctor and his nurses. For the first time in her life, she has a job of her own, an income, and a sense of value.
Until that comes crashing down.
Her husband, Gene, finds his way back to his family's home. He has been gone for months and is horribly disfigured and physically disabled from extensive burns all over his body. Not only is he physically wounded, but he is also mentally unstable. Bitter, controlling, and violent, Gene expects Grace to drop everything and spend 24 hours a day caring for him.
Grace has now lost two satisfying relationships, a job, and the affirmation of people who appreciated her talents and traits.
Resilient and determined, Grace has to figure out how to move ahead with a life constricted by obligation.
Classic Themes: Do you know Ethan Frome?
Ethan Frome is a classic novel by Edith Wharton published in 1911. Also set on the stark New England coast, Ethan Frome is a short book that has haunted me for years. Its theme is similar to the one in The Stars Are Fire.
Ethan Frome is an unfulfilling marriage with Zeena, his unkind and controlling wife. When Zeena's younger relative, Mattie, comes to help with housework, Ethan glimpses hope and joy for the first time in years. Like Grace in The Stars Are Fire, Ethan must decide how to move ahead with his life after he develops feelings for Mattie.
Eventually, he and Mattie decide to commit suicide together. But their plan goes horribly wrong. Ethan is partially crippled, but Mattie is paralyzed. For the rest of their lives, Ethan and Mattie must live with the embittered Zeena in a cold, isolated house.
Anita Shreve and American Literature
Anita Shreve was an English teacher before the urge to write became so strong that she quit before the semester was out so that she could pursue her dream. She worked as a freelance journalist and began publishing in 1986.
Interestingly, she wrote the forward for Penguin Random House's Canadian division edition of Ethan Frome.
Classic themes: Do you know "The Story of an Hour?"
In 1894, Kate Chopin wrote a short story, frequently anthologized and included in feminist literature, reflecting some of the ideas also present in The Stars Are Fire.
"The Story of an Hour" features a woman with a heart condition who is told that her husband has died in a terrible train accident.
At first, she's shaken and experiences a moment of grief. Soon, however, she begins to realize the freedom and opportunities she'll have now without the constraints of marriage. Liberty. Freedom. The ability to be herself and not conform to traditional roles.
Her burgeoning hopes are dashed when her husband, uninjured, walks through the front door. She dies of a heart attack.
Critical review of The Stars Are Fire
Reviews of Shreve's The Stars Are Fire were good.
“Long before Liane Moriarty was spinning her ‘Big Little Lies,’ Shreve was spicing up domestic doings in beachfront settings with terrible husbands and third-act twists. She still is, as effectively as ever.” —New York Times Book Review
“This is sure to be a best seller. Shreve’s prose mirrors the action of the fire, with popping embers of action, licks of blazing rage, and the slow burn of lyrical character development. Absolutely stunning.” —Library Journal (starred review, Editors’ Spring Picks)
Anita Shreve's Last Novel
Anita Shreve published The Stars Are Fire in 2017. It will be her last novel.
In her lifetime, she published 21 books including some nonfiction books about fitness, motherhood, and feminism. She's most known for her novels including The Weight of Water and The Pilot's Wife.
Shreve died in 2018 from cancer.
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