Since her first novel, “Eden Close,” was published in 1989, Anita Shreve’s books have sold many millions of copies; in 1998, Oprah picked “The Pilot’s Wife” for her insta-mega-selling book club. I had the sense as I read Shreve’s newest and 18th novel, “The Stars Are Fire,” that I was in the company of millions of phantom future readers who will adore this novel and devour it and recommend it to all their friends and book clubs.
This sure knowledge of instant popularity intrigued me, a novelist whose books sell in the (very low) tens of thousands, if I’m lucky. As I turned pages like mad, I felt like a nerd studying a popular girl in action, wondering, how does she do it? What does she have that I don’t have? And, of course: Can I do it too?
My findings aren’t going to surprise anyone: No, I probably can’t do it too, because literary likability is not formulaic. It’s instinctive and genuine, and it can’t be faked.
Shreve’s storytelling choices feel organically wedded to her writing, a winning and essentially magical alchemy. I forgave improbable plot turns of luck and coincidence just as I forgave breathless sentence fragments and occasional clunky phrasing, because it’s all in service of a cracking good story.
There is nothing cynical here, nothing that feels smug or calculated to please. Shreve’s heroine, Grace Holland, rises to every challenge because of the way she is, not because Shreve is forcing us to like her. We do like her. She’s admirable but wholly real-seeming, a lonely young mother of two, stuck with and devoted to a husband who’s clearly a species of jerk. And then there’s Shreve’s only slightly romanticized version of Maine, which she portrays as a close-knit community comprised of plucky, hard-working women, strong and chivalrous men, and cooperative children.
It’s all totally irresistible.
Along with storytelling mojo and stylistic verve, this novel has an excellent, suspenseful premise: Grace’s life is upended and ultimately transformed by a real-life historical catastrophe, the wildfires that spread through coastal Maine in October of 1947, following months of severe drought. This destructive, powerful, wide-ranging fire ultimately killed 16 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and property and left many people homeless, including, now, our Grace and her two kids, a toddler and a baby. As the wildfire ravages her seaside town, burns her own house and heads toward the beach, she saves herself, her kids, her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two kids by having everyone lie facedown in the sand, their legs extended into the surf and every other bit of their bodies and hair covered with wet blankets that shield them from overwhelming heat and smoke, breathing into air pockets dug into the sand: “Hour after hour, Grace holds her children. She tries to keep them warm with her body. Her limbs stiffen and ache.” Then, a deep line break, time passing. “A sensation of natural light. A cessation of sound. Only the wash of the water, the odd comment from afar.”
When the fire has passed and gone out, Grace is found and rescued by a kindly, chivalrous man named Matthew who helps her and the kids into his truck, where she thinks, “I did it. I saved my children.” Well, not all of them. She had been 5 months pregnant; now she has a miscarriage following the shock of the fire. While she recuperates in the hospital, Matthew’s plucky wife, Joan, takes excellent care of her kids, even though they’re total strangers to one another, because that’s how Mainers are.
When Grace gets out of the hospital, she learns that her husband, Gene, who’d joined the volunteer firefighters, has disappeared, and she is on her own. The plot kicks into gear as Grace rises from the ashes, phoenix-like, and finds the power to shape her own destiny, with a lot of help from her supporting cast of awesome Mainers and a lot of basic good luck. She quickly lands a job working for a doctor, which involves getting her first driver’s license. Her husband’s late mother owned a beach “cottage” nearby and left it to Gene in her will. Grace moves into this huge house with her kids to find that it’s already inhabited by a squatter, the handsome pianist Aidan, golden-eyed, 6 feet tall, long-haired, who was on a tour when the fire struck and took refuge here in this abandoned mansion, where he plays the piano and reads great literature by the fireplace.
Somehow, Shreve makes all of this feel not only plausible, but necessary and inevitable, if only because this is the fate a character like Grace deserves. And that’s Shreve’s secret, her winning gift. Instead of snorting in disbelief and rolling my eyes and begrudging Grace her unlikely good fortune, I found myself actually rooting for her, as well as admiring Shreve for her narrative generosity. If Grace were one of my characters, she’d end up living in the woods or washing dishes in the squalid kitchen of a roadside inn. And there we have it.
I won’t give away what happens when Grace’s jerk of a husband suddenly reappears, and I definitely won’t reveal what happens between Grace and Aidan, but I will say that I eagerly swallowed every subsequent development in Grace’s life until the last pages. My hunch is that almost everyone who reads this book will feel the same way. In fact, “The Stars Are Fire” is so virtuosic, so infallibly readable, it could very well sell more copies than all Shreve’s others combined.
As for any curmudgeons who don’t fall for the book’s charms, I won’t judge you. This book is a crowd pleaser, but not everyone belongs in the crowd.
Kate Christensen is a novelist and memoirist (katechristensen.net) whose most recent book, “How to Cook a Moose,” won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir.