Thursday, April 18, 2013

Amy Brill's The Movement of Stars, about a female astronomer in 1840s Nantucket

Amy Brill has loosely tethered her fictional protagonist to the life story of Maria Mitchell, America’s first “lady astronomer,” though Hannah Gardner Price is very much her own person. Like her literary sisters from Cape Cod and the Islands – Sena Jeter Naslund’s Una Spenser, Geraldine Brooks’ Bethia Mayfield, and all of Sally Gunning’s historical heroines – Hannah is an intelligent, singular woman who bends the conventions of her time.

With a deep sensitivity to character and place, The Movement of Stars reveals her story. It is a luminously written novel about connections, both scientific and emotional, and how the people around us can either limit or expand our world.

Hannah is an admirable character who’s difficult to warm to, at first. Unwed at age 24 in the year 1845, she keeps her personal feelings under control – except when it comes to the wondrous sights in the night sky she observes from her roof walk in Nantucket Town. Her Quaker community values women’s education, and she has already surpassed what her father Nathaniel, a former astronomer turned banker, can teach her.

Using her Dollond telescope, Hannah hopes to discover a comet, which will not only vindicate her pursuits but could earn her a medal from the King of Denmark, which could fund future research and let her become self-supporting. Otherwise, she will have to move with her father to his future wife’s home in Philadelphia or find someone convenient to marry. She doesn’t like either option, and her predicament is painful and heartfelt: “The idea that she had always been powerless over her own future, but not realized it, was excruciating.” Hannah has been so occupied with stargazing that she has miscalculated her own future… but that’s nothing compared with what’s to come.

When the dark-skinned Azorean second-mate of a whaling vessel, Isaac Martin, asks her for instruction in navigation to improve his skill (and therefore his lot in life), Hannah takes him on as a pupil. Their association and growing closeness cause a disturbance that threatens her continued acceptance by her fellow Quakers. One scene in which Hannah lets Isaac guide her imagination is moving and powerfully rendered, and when she begins to question the ideals she was brought up to believe, the plot intensifies and really begins to take off.

With loving devotion to detail, Brill paints a vibrant picture of Nantucket and Quaker life in the mid-19th century: the seaside buildings, the bonnets and drab colors worn by believers, the plain speech with which they address each other, and their remoteness from the mainland – and how communication between scientists was slowed but not hindered by physical distance. Hannah has colleagues at Harvard, family friends who encourage her efforts, and it’s rewarding to see the mutual support system that lets her thrive.

Within her own town, though, people aren’t as understanding. Her status as a junior librarian and amateur astronomer is respected, if considered eccentric for an unmarried woman. However, while Quakers abhor slavery and favor manumission, their tolerance for the influence of outsiders, especially those of another race, has limits. One of the novel’s most strongly evoked themes involves the point at which industrious self-reliance becomes close-mindedness and xenophobia. “Socializing with the world’s people was grounds for disownment from Meeting these days,” Brill writes of Hannah and Isaac. “How had they strayed so far off course?”

Struggling within an atmosphere of social repression, Hannah stands fast, and her hesitancy to act on occasion makes her seem more real. The members of her family are equally as well defined, and the author’s prose is lyrical and poignant, the one distraction being repeated use of the same nautical metaphors. The novel’s finale suits the times as well as the personality of its complex, spirited protagonist. This breathtaking debut about the mysteries of the heavens and the heart honors the perseverance of trailblazing women everywhere.

The Movement of Stars was published today, April 18th, by Riverhead (hb, $27.95, 380pp).  Penguin will publish it in the UK on May 9th (pb, £7.99).  The review copy was provided by the publisher for LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.


  1. I neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed this book so desperately -- it sounds amazing. All of it. (Well, maybe not repeated nautical metaphors, but I'll live.)

    1. It is so good! I love novels with early New England settings when done well, and this one was.

      The repetitions... yeah. Not a big deal overall, but when the same phrasing is repeated more than 5x, it's rather distracting.

  2. I enjoyed this book too. Hannah could be frustrating at times - she didn't even take the time to get to know people, just assumed she had nothing in common with them, only isolating herself even more. But these flaws made her character more genuine. There was a lot to like about this story.