“The fire runs underground?” Grace asks.
She imagines secret fires tunneling beneath the house. “But how? There’s no oxygen.”
“There’s oxygen in peat and dead vegetation,” Gene explains. The fires move solely beneath the surface, he adds, burning enough to bring more oxygen into the soil. They can burn, undetected, for months, for years.
In October 1947, coastal Maine was ravaged by devastating fires. Sixteen people were killed and more than twenty separate fires burned throughout the state. Against this backdrop, Shreve introduces us to Grace, a housewife whose surface life is everything she thought she always wanted—two children and a successful husband who comes home to her every night. Its only as the fires take everything from Grace that she is faced with deciding what she really wants and, in turn, who that makes her.
Grace as a Survivor
I struggled with this review more than with others, simply because it is difficult to talk abut the evolution of Grace without giving away major plot points that, like a new shoot of growth, she must grow around or risk dying out. As I thought through writing this review, the thought I kept circling back to is that this is the story of surviving a violent relationship, yet most readers will not see it as such. Grace’s husband Gene, in his callousness, his entitlement, stifles and chokes Grace, nearly extinguishing her, yet almost never places his hands on her. Even in those moments, because of the way Shreve has developed the story, because of how familiar Grace’s unhappiness in her marriage feels, the reader is disinclined to jump to recognizing the violence—both emotional and physical—for what it is. Let me disillusion you. From working with survivors of violence and being one myself, this is what a violent relationship looks like. It is not all hits and slaps. It is the contempt Gene feels for Grace. The attempts to isolate. The gas-lighting. Grace is what it looks like to be a survivor.
The violent marital relationship, however, is not the main point of the book. Grace is not defined by Gene—a fact she has to come to realize herself as the fire, having burned away almost everything she thought she knew and held dear, instead gives her room to breathe for the first time. Just as some forests cannot live until the underbrush choking the tender new growth is burned away, so Grace cannot live until the fire burns away everything she knows.
“Classic” Anita Shreve
Admittedly, I have only read one other Anita Shreve and that was quite some time ago; however, this book has much of what I think of as Shrevian characteristics. Her language sizzles and smokes. Shreve writes in juxtapositions, highlighting the brightest whites with the inkiest blacks. Maine first goes through a wet season—so wet that once a dry day finally comes the white laundry flaps on the lines so that “it looked as though an entire town of women had surrendered.” The town, having nearly been destroyed by flood must now contend (or fall) to an all-consuming fire.
Her descriptions are neither lush nor spare, striking the right balance that leaves the reader well acquainted with their new surroundings in Grace’s world in Maine without feeling overwhelmed or slowed by strings of adjectives. There’s a more sex than I typically prefer in my reading; however, nothing that becomes gratuitous. No one is mistaking this book for a Harlequin anytime soon.
Her main character is a female who initially comes across as a shrinking violet before being faced with a series of plot twists that force Grace to either stand or fall on her own. The relationships among women are paramount, with Rosie being Grace’s anchor and safe place to land.
The Friendships of Women
Shreve shines with Rosie. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of a mess—her house is always cluttered, Grace has to save her and her children from the fire—and yet, Rosie is happy. Rosie is fulfilled and loved in her relationships and, as a result, Grace is drawn to her and to what she doesn’t have. I loved Rosie and hope that I can be the kind of friend she was to Grace. Without giving away more, I was pleased with Shreve’s use of Rosie and glad she stayed a part of the story for Grace despite their physical distance after the fire.
Published: April 18, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Anita Shreve
Date read: July 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 stars