9 August 2018

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

Let me start this review by saying that while I love Anita Shreve (there's a whole author review on her here), this was one of my least favourite of her books that I've read. It's also her most recent. My Aunt and Uncle got it for me for Christmas last year and I was so excited to read it because it sounded like it was about a family torn apart by a wildfire. And it was, in a sense, but it's also got more of an Enough / Sleeping with the Enemy Vibe that the characters and time period just didn't lend themselves to in my opinion. It was also incredibly slow.

The Stars are Fire is about a a couple named Gene and Grace who live on the east coast of Maine in the late 1940's. A wildfire sweeps through their community while Gene is away at work and Grace is forced to start a new life with her children, having never worked, driven, or owned anything before. Spoiler alert (because I can't get through this review without it): Gene is presumed dead but eventually makes his way back to his family severely burned and injured. Grace is forced to quickly abandon the new life she's made for herself to become a full time nurse to Gene.

Gene must have died, she realizes with an inner jolt. He would not have walked away from this house. He would not have walked away from his children. A chill settles around her shoulders as she thinks of him dead, his flesh burned away, his white bones in a cornfield or on a forest floor, perhaps disturbed by animals. She imagines the agony of such a death. And to have no resting place, no grave where his wife and children can go pay their respects, to remember him. It's not right."

Shreve slowly reveals that there are some marital issues between Gene and Grace. The book is told from Grace's point of view and she lets readers know that they don't have a ton of conversation, and they aren't super physically intimate with each other. She also hates sex. She's never found pleasure from it and dreads whenever Gene wants to do it. She's frequently envious of her neighbour Rosie who carries on about how much she enjoys having sex with her husband. Let me tell you, there are a few descriptive sexual encounters between Gene and Grace and they do sound awful.

When Gene goes missing and Grace has to rebuild her life, she's initially extremely scared but instinctively starts figuring things out. With their house burned down she goes to stay in Gene's late mom's house that was more inland and protected from the fire. She gets a job working reception at a doctor's office and even buys her own car. I loved reading about these parts. What female empowerment to watch Grace make this work with two kids, zero money, and zero experience. As well, in Gene's late mom's house there is a squatter when they arrive. Grace decides to let him stay so long as he pays rent and eventually they fall in love (and the sex is good). I was really rooting for her. Then Gene shows up.

She points to the sofa. In what looks to be a torturous set of moves, Gene manages to lie on his right side. She finds a pillow and puts it under his head. As she backs away from him, the entire construct of her life collapses. She will live in this house with this injured man on the couch until one of them dies. She will never again go to a job. She will never make love again. She will not have friends. Slowly, she sinks into the armchair under the tremendous weight of her future."

When Gene shows up he's super angry at Grace's independence. The squatter has left to join an orchestra by then but he's still especially suspicious that there was a man in the house. He screams for Grace to bring him the simplest of objects. He sells her car without telling her. Eventually their mutual hatred becomes vocalized and he makes it clear she'll never have a life separate from him. Cue the Enough and Sleeping with the Enemy VibesThere is one amazing scene written where Grace asks Gene why he married her:

'Why did you marry me?' she asks.
'You got pregnant, remember?' he says defensively. 
'Yes. But before. You were romantic, you courted me.'
'Did I? I don't think we should discuss the past.'
'But I want to know.'
'You were there.'
'But I wasn't inside your head.'
'I could lie to you.'
'But don't.'
He props himself up with his right elbow. 'You reminded me of my love,' he says. 
     Grace at first doesn't understand. 'I reminded you of.. your love?'
      And so he gives it to her, the answer she thinks she wants, the answer she'll wish she had never asked for. 'You reminded me of the woman I loved when I was in the war."
   He waits to see how Grace will take this announcement, but she's motionless. 
     'She was French,' Gene adds. 'She looked a lot like you. I couldn't persuade her to come back to the States with me. I used to write to my mother, and once I sent a picture of the two of us together. I told my mother I would marry the woman.' He pauses. 'It's why she didn't like you.'
     The explanation smacks Grace in the face as if she had walked into a glass door. She leaves the library, climbs the stairs to her bedroom and lies on the bed facedown."

How perfect is that?

Eventually, Grace makes a run for it with the kids. She hires him a live in nurse with his insurance money and heads to the east coast of Canada where her neighbour Rosie moved after the fire. I really didn't think it would end this way, I thought we'd see Grace, as the quote suggests, die in the house with Gene.

Anita Shreve

I liked the feminist aspects of this novel. Grace is an incredible role model for victims of domestic violence or emotional abuse, widowed moms that need to change their entire life course after losing a husband, and just for women in general not to settle for unhappiness. I did not like the period aspect of this novel. I just don't like fiction set in the distant past, it's too hard for me to relate to. My biggest disappointment however was the subject matter itself, as I really thought I was about to read a book about a big fire, and in reality the fire made up about half a chapter and the majority of the book was about Grace and Gene. Don't get me wrong, I love to read about a bad marriage, but I would have liked the fire drama I concocted in my head more.

If you're interested in reading some really amazing fiction, I am still confident Anita Shreve is for you, just maybe not this particular book. However, I do think anyone's grandma would love this book (the 1940s being more approachable for them) and I wish my own grandma read more so I could give it to her. I'm making the executive decision now not to read any of Shreve's historical fiction still unread on my shelf.

1 comment:

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