It’s been said that if there are raised letters on the jacket cover and the pages have a ragged, hand-cut look, the book’s important. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is, but in the case of Anita Shreve’s new novel, The Stars are Fire, her 18th, the signaling design proves correct.
Shreve, who came to fame with The Weight of Water and an Oprah selection, The Pilot’s Wife, both made into movies, has crafted in The Stars are Fire a moving, suspenseful, delicately erotic, landscape-harsh tale of endurance and love in the wake of a natural catastrophe. The catastrophe was real. In October 1947, “The Year Maine Burned,” the papers called it, a quarter of a million acres of forest and nine entire towns of homes and seasonal cottages were wiped out, leaving thousands of people homeless, many of them injured psychologically as well as physically.
Shreve, who once taught high school English, takes the title of her book from a line in Hamlet about doubting the strength of love. Hamlet has written sarcastically to Ophelia that she may doubt that the stars are fire, but she must never doubt his love for her. Of course confused by his cold behavior and subject to her father’s manipulation, Ophelia does doubt his love, which angers himIn The Stars are Fire, Shreve uses Hamlet’s ambiguous declaration of love to compelling effect as she advances a theme about the force of true love when it’s tested by the force of nature. In this case fire.
Grace Holland, a pretty 23-year old with two children and a third on the way, is on the beach with her good friend Rosie, whose kids are the same age, when a fire that has started to move dangerously near the coast, suddenly forces its way onto their strip of land. Grace’s husband, a taciturn but responsible vet, has gone off to help set up a firewall, but he does not return. The rage and speed of the fire – “hungry, angry, relentless” – overtake Grace who risks her life to save her children and friend. Never doubt a mother’s fierce love. But a wife’s? That may be something else, especially if the husband is like Gene, who married Grace on the rebound, whose own mother hated her and who is rough in bed. “You made your bed,” Grace’s mother says. To which her increasingly desperate daughter replies, “I didn’t make this bed.”
Using a simple understated style and an involving present-tense third-person point of view, Shreve drives her absorbing narrative through one-word-headed chapters toward a surprising – and satisfying – finish, by way of unexpected plot turns and deepening complexities about the nature of love, the ability of music to soothe and the limits of domestic sacrifice. The time in the novel is the post-war years when, as Grace remarks, everyone, women in particular, thought all danger was behind them, when they thought the world was safe. Doubt about that assumption insinuates itself into this absorbing story with skill and a sensitivity that resonate for our own day.