‘The Movement of Stars’ by Amy Brill
Upon moving to Nantucket, I quickly became aware of the rich history of remarkable women on the island. Perhaps more so than most places, Nantucket’s history is women’s history. With most of the male population gone for years on end whaling in the Pacific Ocean throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nantucket was left a veritable Herland. Given this unusual freedom for the women of the island, it isn’t surprising that some extraordinary characters emerged.
One of the most notable by any measure was Maria Mitchell, lady-astronomer extraordinaire who famously won a metal from the King of Denmark after discovering a comet one night in 1847. She discovered her comet from the roof of the Pacific National Bank in the town of Nantucket and ever since pretty much everyone on the island has been justifiably proud of her.
It was not an islander, however, who decided to take up her story and inject it with a bit of modern fictional flair. Instead, New Yorker Amy Brill was inspired by Maria Mitchell’s story after a short trip to the island back in the 1990s and began writing the novel which would become The Movement of Stars.
In Movement, Brill borrows liberally from Mitchell’s life, but infuses the basic story with all the fixings of a great beach read. There’s our heroine’s feeling of differentness from the rest of her community, the requisite illicit romance, and even the bittersweet, but overall happy, ending. It’s all there, plus more historic details than you can shake a stick at.
And, in the end, that was the sticking point for me. Brill is so intent on historic accuracy that she undoes her own plot: the romance at the heart of the novel would never, ever have happened in the Nantucket of the 1840s and there’s just no way around that.
Needless to say, the parts of the story culled from Mitchell’s own life are extraordinary and improbable enough. There was no need for embellishment and one wishes Brill had focused her energies on novelizing Maria Mitchell rather than feeling the need to give an Azorean lover to her fictional version of Maria. Indeed, Brill’s writing is pitch-perfect throughout the novel and the feelings of otherness expressed by her heroine are powerful enough to stand on their own without the need for a male confidante.
I read Movement my first weekend on the island and it was the perfect break from all the Nantucket nonfiction I had been devouring of late. It was also a perfect start of summer read—more serious than your average beach book, but still light enough to be entertaining and close enough to the historic facts to feel educational.
On the whole, I’d recommend The Movement of Stars for any lazy, sunny day, as long as it’s taken with grain of salt and perhaps followed by a biographic chaser. Among the Stars: The Life of Maria Mitchell by Margaret Moore Booker has been recommended to me by co-workers and I look forward to it immensely.