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Every time a good writer creates a work of fiction based on the life of a little-known historical figure there is cause for celebration. If the work is conscientious, imaginative, honest, and fluid, like The Movement of Stars, our own firmament expands. That life rises to the surface and helps us to answer the question: How did we get here?
Hannah Gardner Price, the young astronomer at the heart of Amy Brill's debut, is based on Maria Mitchell (1818–89), the first American woman to take up astronomy as a profession. Like Hannah, Maria grew up on Nantucket and was a member of the Quaker community. Like Hannah, she discovered a comet in 1847, for which she was awarded the King of Denmark Prize, which made her famous and assured lifelong employment in her chosen field. Like Hannah, she separated from the Friends for philosophical reasons. Like Hannah, she was a woman of strong convictions, believing in equal education for men and women and justice for all. To protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothes.
Amy Brill, who took fifteen years to research and write this novel, doesn't stop there. She puts flesh on the bones; deeply repressed female flesh. The Movement of Stars is a love story — the kind you can't put down; the kind that makes you terribly anxious in that Jane Austen-y way. What if they don't ever get together? What if the world, the culture, the family disapproval prevents them from falling into each other's arms?
Isaac Martin is a second mate on a whaling ship. He appears at twenty-four-year-old Hannah's door one day with a chronometer for her to calibrate. She lives with her father, who is often away on business, and divides her time between work as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, filling in for her father by calibrating chronometers and correcting clocks for ships in port, and doing her own stargazing with the Dollond telescope in the garret of the family house in Nantucket. Her twin brother, Edward, is away on a whaling ship. Her mother passed away when the twins were three.
Hannah has yet to fall in love. She is a serious person, and she worries that she might not be "capable of feeling deeply about anything besides what she saw — or didn't see — in the night sky." But something snaps, or rather, unwinds, when she sees Isaac Martin. He is tall, from the Azores, with "skin the color of honey or new molasses." He is elegant, humble, soft-spoken, beautiful. Hannah doesn't know what is happening to her. She agrees to teach him navigation, so that he might move up the ship's hierarchy. She shows him how the planets move and how to make the necessary calculations to plot a course and locate oneself in relation to the stars.
Over the weeks, it becomes clear to Hannah that they both face similar, artificial, and outrageous restrictions in their lives. Hannah's father determines her fate, while racial prejudice limits Isaac's ascension. "The idea that she had always been powerless over her own future, but not realized it, was excruciating. She'd been propelled toward mastery?over her emotions, over her equations, of the biggest and most minute parts of the Universe — for her entire life?. Until tonight, she thought she'd understood the rules that governed her life as well: work hard, sweep the skies, seek a contribution. Be rewarded. How could she have made so great a miscalculation?"
Sure enough, disapproval in the community grows as they are seen together; simply walking and talking are enough to generate gossip. Physically, the heat between them builds as they continue to help each other: Isaac convinces Hannah that she can be the first to spot a comet and to persist in her efforts. Hannah, for her part, believes in Isaac's intelligence and his ability to learn. They find places to be together, to look at the stars. Soon, Isaac's ship will leave again for another whaling expedition. Hannah realizes that the life of servitude she has been groomed for is not unlike the life of servitude that Isaac faces.
A well-drawn love story can dominate any novel, but Brill manages to weave many threads through her story. Nantucket is carefully and lovingly drawn and will be familiar to readers who love it: Siasconset roses in June, the movements of plovers, the million shades of grey, "slate, mourning dove, granite, thistle." The Society of Friends, once a large part of the population on that island, is fading midcentury and with it a way of island life. When Hannah studies Lamarck's theories of evolution, she wonders "if her own people were one of his dead ends, so perfectly calibrated to life on their Island that no further change was even possible." Brill also captures the thrill of this age of discovery — the inventions that made it possible to see more and more of the Universe. Positioning her characters thoughtfully within in their period, she lets us see how the forces at work in the world were also at work inside Hannah and Isaac.
The stars, of course, are a powerful metaphor — for history as it shifts, for the transience of lives, for truth — but Brill keeps a light hand on the tiller. Destiny is tricky to pin on the page and can swamp a good novel. Brill does an excellent job balancing the love story with the importance of Hannah's success for future generations of women. Maria Mitchell may not have loved an Isaac Martin, but there is no denying that she has an observatory and a comet named for her (it's called "Miss Mitchell's Comet"). The intertwining of cosmic exaltation and human longing, for good work and good love resonate throughout the novel. After all, why shouldn't we have both?
Susan Salter Reynolds is a writer and book critic. She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times.
Reviewer: Susan Salter Reynolds
Posted November 4, 2013