The Movement of Stars: A Novel

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“Gorgeous . . . Sings with insights about love, work and how we create our own families”—

“Amy Brill shines in her sparkling debut novel.”—Vanity Fair

 “Brill's rich detail and research are hugely impressive; it's easy to envision the scenes she sees.”—USA Today

“Beautifully written and richly characterized.”—Kirkus (starred ...

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The Movement of Stars: A Novel

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“Gorgeous . . . Sings with insights about love, work and how we create our own families”—

“Amy Brill shines in her sparkling debut novel.”—Vanity Fair

 “Brill's rich detail and research are hugely impressive; it's easy to envision the scenes she sees.”—USA Today

“Beautifully written and richly characterized.”—Kirkus (starred review)

“A terrifically poised and captivating debut."—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams.

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. But when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A determined young woman, born into a Quaker community in 19th-century Nantucket, defies social norms on the path to becoming a “lady astronomer” in Brill’s charming debut novel. Very loosely based on historical “girl” astronomer Maria Mitchell, Hannah Price spends her days going to Quaker meetings and tending to books at her town’s library, but nights she spends with her eyes on celestial bodies or crouched over mathematical calculations, dreaming of discovering a comet all her own. A serious girl obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge, Hannah fears the passionate restlessness of her twin brother Edward, even as she rejects the strictures of marrying to attain stability. Hannah’s sober routine is interrupted when she takes on a new pupil, Isaac Martin, a sailor from the Azores, whose race shakes up Hannah’s standing in the town. Martin’s ideas and instinctive personal connection with his new teacher alter her attitude toward love and faith. From the main streets of Nantucket to its dunes and shores, from a Harvard observatory to the cities of Europe, Hannah’s emotional and professional journey will please fans of feminist-minded and romantic historical fiction. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A young woman has her eyes opened to her community's limitations--and her own--in television writer/producer Brill's strong debut. In the small, tightly controlled Quaker settlement on Nantucket in 1845, 24-year-old Hannah Price's principal duties are to behave and dress with sober decorum and to find a husband. Though her father has encouraged her passion for astronomy since she was a girl, he's lost interest in celestial observations since her beloved twin brother, Edward, shipped out on a whaling vessel nearly three years earlier. Hannah dreams of sighting a new comet and winning the King of Denmark's prize, but when her long-widowed father announces that he plans to remarry and relocate to Philadelphia, assuming as a matter of course that Hannah must accompany him, she sees painfully and angrily how little control she has over her own life. She is further unsettled by Isaac Martin, a sailor from the Azores who brings his ship's chronometer to be recalibrated and asks Hannah to teach him how to use it. Quakers are against slavery but hardly free of racial prejudice; Hannah's sessions with Isaac scandalize the meeting--and though her critics are narrow-minded, they're not wrong that she is uneasily attracted to a man she has been raised to believe is beneath her. Hannah is by no means a saintly heroine; as her returned brother's new wife points out, she is quick to judge and slow to see anything that can't be observed through astronomical instruments. In spare yet luminous prose, Brill shows Hannah achieving emotional and spiritual growth to match her intellectual gifts: Gaining her heart's desire to be recognized as a scientist, she also finds the courage to acknowledge her feelings for Isaac. Brill's realistic, poignant conclusion gives her appealing protagonist almost equal portions of happiness and sorrow, just as she has done equal justice throughout to the passions of the mind and the flesh. Probing yet accessible, beautifully written and richly characterized: fine work from a writer to watch.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487446
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/18/2013
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,516,606
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy Brill is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV, and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. This is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2013


    Extremely well reseaeched and engrossing. Great for anyone who loves historical fiction, asronomy, womens fiction or the era or location! My favorite book of the year

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted September 15, 2014

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