Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

With all the lights in cities and suburbia, it can be hard to look up and see the stars overhead. But when you get out into an area where the artificial lights don't overwhelm the stars, the night sky is magnificent. I have never learned the names of the constellations but that hasn't stopped me from wanting to lie down on the ground, look up, and just sink into the vastness of the universe. So I can certainly understand the fascination that astronomers have with stars and space and celestial objects. In Amy Brill's debut novel inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first American female astronomer, The Movement of Stars, a very unlikely character, a nineteenth Quaker woman, is seduced by science and the night sky.

Hannah Gardner Price lives on Nantucket in 1845 in the tightly knit, strict Quaker community there. Her father is a clockmaker and an astronomer and he has taught Hannah both his work and his passion. She is an intellectually curious young woman, drawn to the stars and the workings of the universe and as capable of scientific observation as he is. When her father, who has been long widowed, announces that he is going to marry and move to Philadelphia, he assumes that Hannah, as an unmarried daughter, will certainly be moving with him. She is desperate not to leave Nantucket and her observation of the night sky, searching as she is for an undiscovered comet so that she can claim King Gustav of Denmark's prize and the acclaim and recognition that goes with it.

While her father prepares to leave the island and Hannah considers her limited options, she takes on a student, teaching Isaac Martin, a dark skinned sailor from the Azores, celestial navigation so that he can advance in his field. Isaac is an outsider like Hannah, he for the color of his skin and his foreignness, she for her unfeminine craving for education and knowledge and her desire not to marry but instead to contribute to her chosen field. So it is no surprise that Hannah and Isaac are drawn to each other. But her association with this sailor will cost her in her little community despite the fact that she has always dutifully adhered to the letter of the rules they have set out.

Hannah not only flouts convention by rejecting the traditional women's sphere when her father was willing to accommodate her chosen life path but she continues to reject convention when it seems that she will be shunned entirely if she is not under the protection of a father, a husband, or her beloved twin brother, Edward, whose own wife is such a proper Quaker women that Hannah cannot see past her own prejudices to appreciate her new sister in law for the gifts that she does offer, like her acceptance and appreciation of Hannah's brilliant intelligence.

Brill has written a well-researched and interesting novel about the place of women in science and the obstacles that they had to overcome just to practice, never mind to shine and be outstanding. Hannah was a very smart character, quick to learn and willing to persevere in the face of disapproval but she wasn't quite as schooled in the way of emotions and relating to people and her relationship with Isaac teaches her to love out of more than obligation, to examine her feelings and to know her own heart. Their romance perhaps distracted a bit from the fascinating idea of this woman with her eyes trained on the sky, waiting for her comet to appear and to be confirmed but it did contribute to her eventual self-discovery and offered narrative tension of a different sort. Women's choices were so constrained and it took such strength of character for Hannah to pursue her loves, both of Isaac and of astronomy and choices she eventually made were certainly unique. The novel takes a little time to get going and the pacing speeds up quite a bit at the end but over all, this was a satisfying historical novel about one woman's personal and professional growth at a time when certainly the latter was disregarded as important.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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