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Review: The Movement of Stars, by Amy Brill
Riverhead, 2013. 388 pp. $28

Hannah Price wants the moon, or, to be precise (and she values precision above all else), a comet. A Quaker woman living on Nantucket in 1845, Hannah scans the skies nightly, searching for a comet that no one else has catalogued. If she succeeds, she’ll win a prize from the king of Denmark, but Hannah’s not looking for fame (though the prize money would come in handy). Rather, she dreams of contributing to scientific knowledge.

On Nantucket, or anywhere in 1845, this isn’t the path women are supposed to follow, especially Quaker women. Hannah has a little leeway, because her father is an astronomer; they repair and adjust chronometers for the ships that come to port, the island’s economic lifeblood. Better yet, her former teacher, the influential Dr. Hall, has encouraged her brilliance at mathematics and science. However, men are always the ones to decide what she can do, and where. And since her mother died when she was very young, her only ally is her twin brother Edward, now away at sea.

U. S. Coast Survey chart including Nantucket, 1857 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

U. S. Coast Survey chart including Nantucket, 1857 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Into this delicate balance steps Isaac Martin, a whaling crew member to whom Hannah offers lessons in celestial navigation. Their friendship sets tongues wagging, especially since Isaac comes from the Azores and is dark-skinned. Unlike its Ohio counterpart in The Last Runaway (April 23), the Friends Meeting of Nantucket is firmly abolitionist, though hardly more tolerant. Hannah risks being kicked out of Meeting (and suffering her father’s discipline) by having social relations with a nonbeliever, proper though these relations are–for the moment.

The Movement of Stars is worth reading for its protagonist. Hannah is a very difficult person, for whom the only ready emotion is anger, and who sees slights everywhere. That she’s often correct doesn’t obscure how socially inept she is, even cruel. She’s more than dimly aware that her inability to make chitchat or contribute to the necessary social grease has cost her. Brill has done superbly here, creating sympathy for an unpleasant outcast, no mean feat. That Hannah also learns to see more clearly, extending her search for the truth of the heavens to those of human interaction, is another masterstroke. Yet she never gives up her anger at being thwarted or manipulated by men, even those she loves, and I admire her unwillingness to compromise what she believes. Against her will and love of precision, toward the end, she reluctantly concludes that “two competing Truths could in fact coexist in one mind.” (By the way, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that this ability was the test of a first-rate intelligence. It’s one of my favorite quotes.)

Unfortunately, the rest of The Movement of Stars doesn’t live up to its heroine. None of the other characters seem full to me; I’m disappointed in Dr. Hall and Hannah’s father, Nathaniel, who feel like straw men, at times. Brill tries to suggest more, and I like Hannah’s confusion about their motives, but I’m confused too. Most importantly, I can’t grasp Isaac, who reads like a stock character–the taciturn, down-to-earth sailor whose homespun wisdom turns Hannah’s life around. I believe her attraction for him, all right, for what he represents, and the internal struggle she has over the pull he exerts seems real and significant. But Isaac assumes that any hesitations she has about him must be due to race or class prejudice alone, which makes him the only man in the novel who gets away with ignoring the barriers she faces as a woman.

There’s one other way in which The Movement of Stars loses focus, and that’s the prose. The last few chapters stray from the nineteenth century in tone and manner, as when Nathaniel says, “Thy travels have certainly impacted thee.” Whoops. To be sure, it’s a first novel, and an accomplished one. But it’s fair to ask how Brill, skilled at observing interactions, would tell, tell, tell: “When she was near him, Hannah felt both exhilarated and free at the same time, the way she felt when she was observing. The idea of parting from him was excruciating.” That reads like shorthand, not characterization.

That said, I still recommend The Movement of Stars. Not only is Hannah a fascinating character, I liked reading about the whaling and Quaker communities (highly intertwined) of Nantucket.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.