It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve! There are definitely spoilers ahead.
In post-war Maine, Grace Holland seems to have the perfect life. She has two young healthy children, her husband has a great job as an engineer and they own their own bungalow in a small beach-side town in Maine. But when fire breaks out after a summer long drought, pregnant Grace loses everything in one night and must find a way to build a new life for herself and her children. After going to help fight the fires, her husband Gene doesn’t come back.
After being hospitalized for the loss of her baby, Grace is reunited with her mother and children and they make their way to her late mother-in-law’s home. Reasoning that the home is Gene’s and as Gene’s presumed widow, the home is now hers, she sets to making the house habitable for the family. She finds work as the office manager for a doctor new in town, she learns to drive and buys a car.
And when everyone is happily settled into this new reality, not-really dead Gene returns badly injured with a different personality, like a bomb ready to tear everything apart.
I spent the first half waiting for Gene to return – it wasn’t a ‘twist’ that was particularly well hidden. The stage was already set for him to be a horrible person – their third child was conceived after a forcible encounter, something that deeply shamed Grace. Although her life before the fire looked like one that would be envied, it was clear from the first page that it was all a facade. Gene drank a little too much, their life was rigidly structured, and socializing too much with the neighbours was frowned upon.
I liked reading this book. It could have been incredibly saccharine and heavy handed but Grace has enough hardness to her that she doesn’t become a stranded damsel. She is more than capable of handling the challenges that have been sent her way. I appreciated that we got to see Grace rebuilding her life on her own before the reappearance of Gene – it showcased her strength, her abilities and served to foreshadow how Grace could react should her life fall apart again.
This time Grace isn’t content to live the life that other people think should be good enough.
What does the book say about being a wife?
For a lot of the book, Grace isn’t a wife. She navigates her life in the aftermath of her marriage, when a natural disaster has robbed her of all of the material possessions and status she was supposed to want. In many ways, Grace is freed from her status as a wife. When she is married, she is unsure of what she wants and there is a certain inevitability to her days.
Her and Gene’s marriage is not a love match, they met and her mother urged her to marry him as he would be able to give her the kind of life that would be easy. Her mother also feels a certain relief in her widowhood, her husband having died in the course of his work as a fisherman. Grace’s mother doesn’t understand why Grace questions her life at all. For her it is simple: a husband provides and a wife makes a nice home.
I think Grace was traumatized by the death of her father and the withdrawal of her mother and she saw Gene as a way to have her own life. But that life isn’t what she thought it would be, probably because it was missing any kind of affection. Freed from the constraints of her marriage (albeit under fairly tragic circumstances), Grace is able to learn who she is and what she wants.
When Gene returns, he destroys all of that. He is horribly disfigured, angry, violent and crass. The aggressive tendencies he had already displayed towards her in the Before, are no longer disguised and in an effort to protect her children, Grace allows Gene to take his anger out on her. Mostly it seems like The Stars Are Fire is saying that being a wife is suffocating and horrible and one shouldn’t get married young to people who are virtual strangers. It is only once Grace gets to live her own life as a single person that she finds any kind of happiness.
Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in February when we read They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple.