#LiteraryWives: The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Goodreads synopsis: In October 1947, after a summer-long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village. Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort. They spend the night frantically protecting their children and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists. In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars. Then the unthinkable happens and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before. 


What I like best about this book is its historical setting. I hadn’t known about the devastating Maine fires of 1947 until reading this. It must have been terrifying to have lived through them, and a huge struggle to figure out how to live once they were over.

Because of the fires being a central event, the book is also able to highlight the kindness of strangers after such an event. After Grace was rescued, she and her two children were welcomed into someone’s home (someone who still had a home) for as long as required. The doctor was another kind-hearted soul, although I was confused by his relationship with Grace beyond their professional relationship. If Gene hadn’t come back, what would have happened there?

I loved Grace’s friendship with Rosie, but thought that the whole romantic arc of the story was very obvious from the beginning because of something Grace reveals about Rosie and her husband.

And that brings us to Grace’s husband, Gene. She talks about him being a good man who loves his children. But there is no passion in their marriage. Grace doesn’t really seem to know quite what she’s missing out on, but knows something’s not as it should be.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Grace is happy being a mother and thinks she’s content being a wife to Gene until she begins to question why she doesn’t seem to be as happy with Gene as Rosie is with Tim. If not for Rosie, Grace wouldn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Her mother was so horrified by the direction of the conversation that she walked out of the room and told Grace to go talk to the minister.

After the fires, everything changes. Gene is missing, and Rosie and Tim go to live in Nova Scotia. Grace has to find a way to take care of her family on her own. They move into Gene’s mother’s house (who recently passed away), she gets a job with the doctor, she learns how to drive and buys her own car. And she meets Aiden, a pianist who has been living in her mother-in-law’s house (which was empty) since the fire. First she is seduced by his music, and eventually by him. But he has to leave to pursue his career, not to mention the fact that Grace is still married to a man who may still come home.

Just as Grace and the doctor start spending a lot of time together, Gene does comes back. He has been through unimaginable horrors and is still in a lot of pain from his extensive burns. He’s cranky, irritable, impatient, paranoid, controlling and unbearable to be around. Grace feels her duty is to take care of him, but he is making everyone in the house miserable. Such a stark contrast after the independence and freedom she had recently been experiencing. But the thought of leaving him makes her feel guilty.

With this “new” Gene, she feels like a prisoner.

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.

One can hardly blame Gene for being a bit grumpy about his new life as a burn victim. However, I feel like the author made it too easy for us to condemn him completely and root entirely for Grace. I think it would have been interesting to have made him a more sympathetic character, and to have Grace’s decision and actions more of a dilemma. She’s even able to find a way to finance his ongoing care after she goes. The reader can’t blame her in the least for leaving. But what if he hadn’t been such a monster? What if he had made more effort with his children? What if he had had no one else to care for him? However, it was good to see Grace become more independent and find ways to take care of herself and her children without relying on a husband.

Don’t forget to check out what the other Literary Wives have to say!

Next (February 2019): They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple – Join us! 

20 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

  1. whatmeread says:

    I like your point about it being too easy to make Gene a villain, even though I thought he was a poor husband from the beginning. Having his personality be more nuanced would have made the book more interesting. We didn’t really see any good qualities he may have had.

    • Naomi says:

      His one good point seemed to be that his children liked him (before the fire). I found it so heartbreaking that his children became afraid of him. I feel like she could have milked quite a lot of sympathy for him from that angle. But it was an enjoyable read the way it was, too.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I was a big Anita Shreve fan for quite some time but haven’t read her for a while. The characters in this one seem slighlty two-dimensional or is that unfair? Presumably this was her last book.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I read that! How sad! She has written quite a lot of books, I think.
      I read a few of her books a long time ago, but then hit a couple I didn’t like as much and fell off the wagon. Maybe the same thing happened to you?

  3. Lynn Gerrard says:

    I had already replied, but it evidently didn’t take. I love the quote you used-it definitely shows her total despair and I could relate to that. How devestating! I felt Gene was somewhat of an abuser even before the fire, though subtly. I found it difficult to have much compassion for him afterward. I guess I could just relate so much with Grace’s situation. And the poor kids! I believe that without the money she would have been stuck. I was glad to see her reconnect with Aidan; I thought they were soulmates. It seemed her leaving worked out well for Gene, too. He seemed much happier and more motivated with the full-time therapist than he was with Grace. Wasn’t it amazing that the couple took Grace and the children in? Wow…

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t have much compassion for him either, after the fire. I don’t think we’re supposed to. That’s the reason I started to wonder how the story might have been different if we’d been able to see something good in him.
      Despite my grumbling, the book does have a satisfying ending. I especially love that they went to live in Nova Scotia. I hear that’s a nice place. 😉

      • buriedinprint says:

        Heheh Yes, I’ve heard it’s nice too. Well, I think I enjoyed reading your comments and your review more than I would have enjoyed the book itself. Like you, and others here, I’ve read a couple of her books in the past (no historical ones, not that I recall) but they felt a little thin for my taste. Only occasionally am I in the mood to read something lighter to start with, and, when I am in that mood, I’d rather pick up a Jody Picoult (and there are plenty of those I haven’t read yet either) or …I can’t think of another in that vein just now.

      • Naomi says:

        Well, I can’t say you really missed out on this one, but I’m hoping to be able to say that about the next one. (Although, so far it’s no where to be found in this beautiful province!)

  4. The Paperback Princess says:

    That’s a really good point you’ve made about it being so easy to hate Gene. It was very cut and dried – she clearly had to leave. Even before he was injured though, he was kind of awful. Now I want to read the version you’re envisioning!
    I didn’t know about the fire in Maine either – I love when I learn something like this from fiction.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t know why, but I always seem to find myself wondering about other scenarios that *could* have happened, and then I wish I could read that version too. Why do I do that to myself? Haha

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    That scenario does sound terrifying. I like that she gets a life of her own while he’s missing. It’s too bad Gene is so one dimensional. I haven’t read an Anita Shreve book in probably 15 years at least.

    • Naomi says:

      Many of us seem to have taken a long break from Anita Shreve. I ran into a couple I didn’t like as much and stopped reading her altogether. Was that your experience as well?

      • Laila@BigReadingLife says:

        I think I just don’t read as much historical fiction as I used to. It’s not a genre I gravitate towards normally unless I hear a lot of praise for something. And I guess maybe I relegated her to that nebulous/slightly shady category “women’s fiction” that I shouldn’t really even use but I still do, if I’m honest. Perhaps I should give her another try sometime.

      • Naomi says:

        I kind of think of her in that category, too, actually. Not usually my thing, but good sometimes when I’m looking for something on the lighter, more predictable side!
        Although, I’ll warn you… “Testimony” is not light – it horrified me!

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