When we talk today about women’s rights we fail to remember that it wasn’t until 1920 that women were allowed to vote in the United States and it has only been in the last forty or so years that women could get their own credit cards or purchase property without a male consigner. Consider that the ERA has never been ratified into law and our country has been unsuccessful in voting a woman into office as President, but still wives have a lot more rights today than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s.
The role of women in 1947 is an underlying theme throughout The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve. Grace Holland is a dutiful wife whose life evolves around her husband Gene and her two young children. She doesn’t work or drive, relying on Gene to provide for the family. His will dominates their lives, but their amiable chatter in the evenings plus her friends in the community, especially her next door neighbor Rosie, are enough to keep Grace content with her lot in life. At twenty three she’s a little confused about their lackluster sex life, wondering why she must lie face down in an uncomfortable position, but the act is over quickly and her husband’s needs must be met (a part of her wifely duty). After an especially rough session, Grace is unsure if she should be grateful for his sudden indifference, but the less he touches her, the less he communicates. Then when one night, after he fails to “perform” despite her assuming the preferred position, Gene becomes taciturn and aloof, withdrawing any of the little bit of affection previously expressed.
When “The Fire” begins in their area, after a summer of drought, the community hopes it won’t come so close to the ocean, but despite their preparations, when the alarm is given they barely have time to escape. Rosie and Grace grab their children and head for the ocean, taking refuge in the water protecting the little ones under their bodies. Rosie is rescued first, but by the time help comes for Grace she is suffering from hypothermia. Kindhearted strangers provide assistance as Grave recuperates at the hospital. Her husband, out fighting the fire, does not return, so Grace finds herself relying on others until she can find a way to take up the mantle as provider. Deciding to move into her deceased mother-in-law’s vacant home (well almost vacant) and with the help of her mother, she restarts her life. The squatter, a brilliant pianist, stays for awhile to help out, and Grace discovers a new identity along with a true sense of contentment which was formerly missing in her life. Taking advantage of some of the conveniences of the large Victorian House, a home where she was never made to feel welcome, Grace finds a way to survive after losing everything. Of course, when things start to go wrong, she has some serious decisions to make, weighing a sense of duty against the loss of any semblance of her new found liberty.
The author creates a story based on a true disaster, an October fire which wiped out parts of Maine from Bar Harbor to Kittery. Grace’s tale also reflects the era prior to the bra burning days where women demanded equal rights. Gene reflects the attitude men had towards their wives who were considered more like domestic servants (with benefits) than spouses. Since Gene was a laudable provider who did not beat his wife and even helped out a bit around the house, he would have been considered a commendable husband (despite his lack of ardor in the bedroom). When I hear people lament about the good old days, meaning the 1950s, they often don’t realize it was a time of inequality, not just for minorities, but for women. (Or maybe they do!). I liked the fact that Grace was able to reinvent herself after that terrible experience. As a mother of four I empathized with her frantic actions and as a grandmother I rejoiced that her mother was right there for her, providing the support she needed. Almost a child herself, Grace certainly had a full plate.
Well written, fast paced, with just enough action to keep our interest, and a starring role for the crazy weather, I particularly enjoyed the culmination (even though I was secretly anticipating these very actions) with everybody getting exactly what they deserved.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.