To be honest, it took me awhile to get into The Stars are Fire.
There was something about the way Anita Shreve (The Pilot’s Wife, The Weight of Water) wrote that I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked, at first. A sort of other-worldliness. Like I was watching the story unfold from far away. I think part of the reason was that The Stars are Fire is written in the third person. I usually like to read books in the first person, where the author is “I”. And part of it was that Shreve’s writing can be quite abstract in the most intriguing of ways. The Daily Telegraph’s review of the book said that “Her sentences contain whole universes,” and I think this is the most apt description I can find of her writing style.
I think I was on a train in Italy somewhere, about a third of the way through the book, when I started to get used to Shreve’s writing style and become hungry for each new page. I began to really appreciate Shreve’s unique descriptions of details. Peculiar sentences and tantalizing metaphors drew me in with their creativity.
But let me backtrack a little first. Set during the Great Fires of 1947 in Maine, The Stars are Fire is a story about the emancipation of a woman locked into a marriage and life that leaves her empty. When her husband leaves to help fight the fires racing along the coast, Grace is left alone, pregnant and with two small children, to fight for the survival of their family.
Both heartbreaking and inspiring, the mental resilience she shows as she saves them from the fires and resulting poverty is totally badass. She makes a whole new life for them, and in the process, proves to herself that she’s strong and brave. Not only does she not need her husband Gene, but she relishes the freedom from his oppression.
I felt like I could relate. I got married at 21 to a man who loved me but was also very traditional, and had pretty specific and imposing ideas about gender roles (I’m not married to him anymore, I’m with a guy who loves me for me!). So I could picture myself in Grace’s shoes a little too easily. We all know that the societal expectations of women in 1947 were very limiting, and that women were often essentially controlled by their husbands or parents.
But reading it and feeling it through Grace was still heart-wrenchingly familiar. She has her wifely duties and she doesn’t really know anything else, but she yearns for more. Sometimes she would attempt to tell Gene about something small that happened in her day, like the pie-crust regulations changing at the supermarket, and she wonders, “would he care or would that go into the category of ‘women’s work’, a subject that allows him to dismiss it?” Gene’s indifference towards Grace made me feel so much compassion towards her as a character.
I fell in love with Grace and her stone-cold strength. I loved her two minute walks down the drive to the road to smoke a cigarette and be just herself – not a mother, not a wife, not a sexual object. I loved that she manages to save her family and find a job, without any work experience or formal education. She’s smart, sensible, independent and a little numb because she has to be.
Aidan (the beautiful character that you will need to read the book to find out more about) and his music is the beginning of her finding her freedom. He is the first person to actually see her, and respect her, which is the beginning of her respecting and valuing herself. His music is like the embrace that Grace never received from her husband. It moves her beyond anything.
The sensual descriptions of music carry into their sexual experience, and the descriptions of the music become passionate and visceral, until they’re interchangeable. When he leaves, “the silence in the house is haunting… the loss is in her skin, along her backbone.” It is such a physical, synaesthetic experience that I felt every note and caress through the page.
I think the fact that the 1947 fires of Maine actually happened definitely made The Stars are Fire hit home a lot more for me. Fiction can be moving, but because I knew that this was a reality for so many people, before I even read the book, it went deeper. And even though Shreve’s writing style made the story feel foreign at first, it became a foreign universe that I was immersed in, rather than one I couldn’t understand.
It made me remember painful things about my marriage, and freeing things about my life now, and all the messy, beautiful in between things. Like I said, fiction can be moving, but because part of this story this was a reality for me, it went deeper.