Books We Loved, May 2020
Amy Brill, The Movement of Stars
The Movement of Stars begins in 1845, on the then provincial island of Nantucket. Protagonist Hannah Price, an amateur astronomer, thinks she may have discovered a previously unknown comet. But given the fact that she is not only working with less than state-of-the-art equipment but is also a woman in a man’s world—and, to boot, a member of a strict Quaker community focused on modesty and discipline—it is easy enough for her to imagine that she must be mistaken. Just as she equivocates about her comet sighting (a male astronomer who discovers the same comet later but announces it first receives all the credit), she also hedges when the chance for love shows up in her life. When her widower father announces that he will soon move to Philadelphia to remarry and that Hannah must either marry herself or leave her beloved Nantucket and move with him, Hannah is forced to begin the slow and often painful process of imagining a life for herself that is not imposed upon her by external forces.
While Brill’s story is mostly peopled by fictitious characters (all of them wonderfully well drawn), Hannah herself is inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in the United States, also from Nantucket. Brill seems to have taken the textbook facts about Mitchell’s life (which appears to be all that is available) and used them to build a story about a woman of tremendous passion forced to live in a world that rejects it.
The Movement of Stars is a wonderful rich and intriguing literary historical novel. I wanted to linger over every word, yet at at the same time, I wanted to race through to the end, because I couldn’t stand the not knowing.—JS
Colleen Hoover, Verity
(Colleen Hoover, 2018)
Verity is a psychological thriller by Colleen Hoover, who normally writes romance and women’s fiction. Though I’m a fan of both, this is the first book of hers I’ve read. It starts off strong—Lowen Ashleigh, a struggling New York author who’s recently lost her mother to cancer, is walking to a meeting with her publisher when the man in front of her is obliterated by a truck. She’s dazed and covered in gore when a man offers to guide her to the nearest public bathroom to clean up, even giving her his shirt, as he confesses that a few months back he lost his daughter when she drowned. Lowen is sympathetic, but not so dazed that she doesn’t notice he’s gorgeous. Fifteen minutes after parting ways, they show up at the same meeting. Turns out he’s Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, who has two books left on her contract but has been temporarily sidelined by a car accident. Lowen, who only minutes before was facing eviction, is offered half a million dollars to finish Verity’s series.
She declines, but Jeremy’s pull is too strong. Before long, Lowen finds herself holed up in Verity’s office in the Crawfords’ sprawling house in Vermont, with full access not only to the family’s tragic history but to Verity’s notes, manuscripts, and, of course, her husband. And when Lowen discovers a manuscript labeled as an autobiography, she hopes to use it to get into Verity’s head so that she can find her voice and finish the books. But the autobiography contains confessions of horrors Lowen never could have imagined, made even creepier by the fact that the seemingly incapacitated Verity appears to be moving around the house, watching her husband fall in love with another woman. A final twist will leave readers wondering if anything they thought they knew to be true actually was.
Hoover is a gifted thriller writer, and this book will appeal to fans of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and even Jane Eyre, with its madwoman in the attic. The quiet creep factor is long-lasting, and the open-ended finale leaves a lot of scope for the imagination.—CJH
(Oxford University Press, 2020)
As the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, I read a lot of novels, mostly set in the past. But as an author of historical fiction, I also need to research the past, and when I’m lucky, I find a real story every bit as engrossing and evocatively written as the fictional kind. Carolyn James’s new study of the correspondence of Isabella d’Este and her husband, Francesco Gonzaga, the marquis of Mantua, is that kind of history—at once deeply informed, perceptively analyzed, and convincingly argued in compelling prose.
Isabella, a daughter of the Renaissance Italian city-state of Ferrara, entered into a political marriage with Francesco when she was only fifteen. Things did not go well at first: she resisted intimacy with her new husband and yearned to return to her home; he courted her with an on-and-off nonchalance that at times verged on clumsiness. Even when Isabella became pregnant, three years after their marriage, she did her best to deny reality until her mother forced her to admit the truth. But through the ongoing correspondence—between husband and wife, but also between husband or wife and other relatives or advisers—James traces the gradual emergence of a partnership, its flowering and eventual disruption by conflict and illness. She also explores Isabella’s personal life, as the fifteen-year-old grows into one of the prominent political and cultural figures of the Italian Renaissance, a context delineated to a depth and extent impressive in a book that barely exceeds two hundred pages.
Not only does this fascinating study examine a phenomenon central to all my Russian novels—arranged marriages and their joys and discontents—but there is a specific link to Song of the Siren and my new, co-written murder mystery. Isabella’s sister married Ludovico Sforza, who reportedly secured his position as duke of Milan by murdering his nephew, the father of Bona Sforza, who became queen of Poland in 1518. So the world that Isabella inhabits is also, in many ways, the world that shaped Bona, giving this book a special relevance for me.—CPL