The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While living in the constrictive Quaker society of 19th Century Nantucket, Hannah Price dreams of discovering a comet. This feat would make her a professional astronomer. So goes the premise to Amy Brill’s first novel: The Movement of Stars. Yet this book is not about astronomy. Rather, it focuses on a gifted protagonist struggling to avoid pitfalls that would leave her ordinary.
Hannah’s increasing attraction to a dark-skinned sailor named Isaac Martin quickly becomes the novel’s primary source of suspense, overtaking Hannah’s observations of the night sky. They meet when Hannah agrees to teach him navigation, which in the 19th century required astronomy. The inevitable social tension generated by their association threatens to foil both Hannah and Isaac’s worthy professional ambitions.
19th Century gender and racial dynamics are of course well-worn trappings for novelists, in part because they can be so engrossing. Still, so much of the book reads dry and rather stiff. Certainly a great deal of this can be attributed to the culture being depicted: a religious community for whom restraint and decorum are elevated forms of religious expression. However, the novel spends a surplus of time in the doldrums. I almost gave up reading a third of the way in. Fortunately, I was rewarded by seeing the novel to its conclusion.
Partly due to my personal experience growing up in conservative religion, I could appreciate the excessive posturing and naivety stemming from Hannah's sexual repression. Early on she lacks the ability to interpret even basic biological attraction to Isaac Martin. Ms. Brill is careful and cautious in escalating the attraction between Hannah and Isaac. As their attraction deepened, so did my interest in it.
In terms of drama, things really get going when Isaac challenges Hannah's intellectual assumptions. This is a great storytelling choice, given that Hannah begins the novel as one of the more enlightened characters. Yet Isaac teases out her shortcomings, almost always in a gentlemanly way. By halfway through the novel I wanted these two together. And if you can get a curmudgeon like me invested in a love story, you have accomplished something not easily done.
Yet even as she begins to open up and take chances, Hannah remains difficult to connect with. She keeps others at arm’s length, including those most well-intentioned. Before novel's end, she is faced with at least three positive outcomes. I found myself somewhat annoyed with her devout hesitance. I wanted to lock eyes with her and say, "Hannah, say yes to someone." Yet her destiny remains fixed in orbit around the fate of real life female astronomer Maria Mitchell, whom the author crafted Hannah after. Far from parroting history though, Brill finds emotional depth and significance by tying pseudo-historical Hannah’s fate up with fictional Isaac’s…which is to say I haven’t spoiled the ending.
The Movement of Stars fits well alongside two other commendable works I have enjoyed:
Shine Shine Shine
. All three offer rich character-driven stories while integrating compelling science. Science fiction often indulges the latter while neglecting the former, thus alienating itself from a broader readership. Yet I can recommend this novel independent of its astronomical motifs. You may not end up on the edge of your seat, but The Movement of Stars rewards the committed reader with a genuine and touching human journey.
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