Anita Shreve’s books are reliably engrossing literary page-turners, never formulaic — unless trouble and desire mixed with the vicissitudes of fortune can be called a formula. In almost 20 novels, including “The Pilot’s Wife,” “Fortune’s Rocks ” and “The Weight of Water,” Shreve consistently creates complex characters and plots, often drawn from the historical record or obscure headlines. She hands her characters a seemingly insurmountable problem or dire situation and tests them with oppressive social mores, menacing evil, buried secrets or catastrophic events — frequently, all of the above. Then she tells their stories in unobtrusively elegant prose.
“The Stars Are Fire,” her new novel, is set in Maine during the real-life disaster of 1947 when a severe drought caused a series of massive fires that burned out of control for 10 days. In Acadia National Park, 10,000 acres went up in flames, along with most of the mansions on Bar Harbor’s Millionaires’ Row. Fishermen and the Coast Guard rescued thousands from the shoreline. Firefighters and evacuees were trapped behind a burning wall that cut through Kennebunkport. Sixteen people were killed, thousands left homeless.
In this story, when the fire arrives, Grace Holland and her neighbors head to the water’s edge. Twenty-four years old, a mother of two young children and pregnant with a third — Grace holds her children in the frigid sea overnight as the flames send smoke and burning debris onto the beach. In the midst of crisis, she finds a strength she didn’t know she had, but her losses are devastating, and she faces a precarious future.
The scenes of the disaster, of the townspeople trying to save what they can, are tense and vivid. But Shreve is more interested in tragedy’s aftermath, when Grace is sorely challenged. Before the fire, “In many ways, she thinks, her family is perfect. Two beautiful children . . . a husband who works hard at his job and doesn’t resist chores at home.” Grace is thankful for her seaside bungalow and her family’s health. She asks for little and does not complain. Still, she fears hers will be a restricted life, that she will likely never have a job or even learn to drive a car. She is bravely resigned to days spent watching the fog roll in as the babies continue to arrive. In this existence, a new washing machine is a luxury, and a dollar has to stretch. Trouble in the bedroom is not to be mentioned.
Like many of Shreve’s protagonists, Grace is filled with inchoate longing. She has untapped potential and a desire for romance but doesn’t have the education or income to pursue her dreams. Her best friend, Rosie, seems to have a happier marriage, a brighter future, one that Grace envies as she hangs out the wash and steals away for five minutes’ peace with a cigarette on the beach. She tries to ignore “the niggling sense of something wrong.”
When the fires break out and destroy so much, they also leave room for new growth. Grace’s life suddenly holds out the promise of a fresh start. The question of whether she will prevail — or again be trapped into subservience — keeps the reader rooting for her. Shreve builds suspense with small details: a cloud of dust in the wind, a pervert lurking at the seashore, strange noises upstairs. Like every lone woman, Grace is in a constant state of alert, and Shreve is very good at keeping a low level of dread running through her pages.
Just when Grace appears to be gaining true independence, events conspire to spin her life in a dangerous direction, and she stands to lose the happiness and freedom she’s worked so hard to gain. Shreve knows a great deal about the human ability to resist despair, and this novel, like many of her others, shows how hard work and compassion are — sometimes — rewarded. It’s no spoiler to say that in “The Stars Are Fire,” stoicism, kindness and courage win the day over bitterness and cruelty.
Kate Manning is the author of the novels “My Notorious Life” and “Whitegirl.”
By Anita Shreve
Knopf. 256 pp. $25.95