The Movement of Stars: A Novel

 by Amy Brill

 (Penguin/Riverhead, $27.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

This is Amy Brill’s debut novel, so her name may not be familiar to you. She is a native New Yorker who now lives in Brooklyn – there must be a law that requires hot young literary talent to live there these days – and she has a background in broadcast journalism, having worked for PBS and MTV, for whom she wrote “The Social History of HIV,’ winning a prestigious Peabody Award for that project.

Articles, essays and short stories by Brill have been published on Salon and in Guernica, Time Out New York and the anthology,  “Before and After: Stories from New York and Lost and Found.”

What is this book about?

“The Movement of Stars” is a historical novel and a love story, inspired by the life of America’s first female professional astronomer, Maria Mitchell, a 19th century pioneer who discovered a comet in 1847 and won the King of Denmark Prize for her work.

Brill’s novel is set on Nantucket in 1845, where Hannah Gardner Price, a 24-year-old Quaker and dutiful daughter, is expected to help her father make and repair navigation instruments and tend the village library, while awaiting marriage and motherhood. But Hannah’s passion is studying mathematics and  the stars, dreaming of finding a comet and being the first woman to win the Danish prize – that is, until Isaac, a young second mate on a whaling ship, who is a handsome, dark-skinned native of the Azores, seeks her help in having his ship’s chronometer recalibrated.

Soon, her whole life is being recalibrated, as Isaac becomes her student, supporter and close companion, her father remarries and threatens to move Hannah to Philadelphia, and the Quaker community displays distressing prejudice because of Hannah’s relationship with Isaac. Hannah must summon up hitherto untapped intellectual and emotional resources to pursue her dreams.

Why you’ll like it:

Brill worked for 15 years researching and writing this novel, and that was time and effort well-spent. It is really four stories in one: a historical tale, a look at early scientific study, a rousing love story and a novel of a woman’s awakening, all beautifully braided into one book. The author has won praise from reviewers for her simple, straightforward prose, which mirrors the Quaker aesthetic, the deft way she blends historical fact with inspiring fiction and her evocative description of Nantucket Island and its people.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “A determined young woman, born into a Quaker community in 19th-century Nantucket, defies social norms on the path to becoming a “lady astronomer” in Brill’s charming debut novel. Very loosely based on historical “girl” astronomer Maria Mitchell, Hannah Price spends her days going to Quaker meetings and tending to books at her town’s library, but nights she spends with her eyes on celestial bodies or crouched over mathematical calculations, dreaming of discovering a comet all her own. A serious girl obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge, Hannah fears the passionate restlessness of her twin brother Edward, even as she rejects the strictures of marrying to attain stability. Hannah’s sober routine is interrupted when she takes on a new pupil, Isaac Martin, a sailor from the Azores, whose race shakes up Hannah’s standing in the town. Martin’s ideas and instinctive personal connection with his new teacher alter her attitude toward love and faith. From the main streets of Nantucket to its dunes and shores, from a Harvard observatory to the cities of Europe, Hannah’s emotional and professional journey will please fans of feminist-minded and romantic historical fiction.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A young woman has her eyes opened to her community’s limitations–and her own–in television writer/producer Brill’s strong debut.  …Hannah dreams of sighting a new comet and winning the King of Denmark’s prize, but when her long-widowed father announces that he plans to remarry and relocate to Philadelphia, assuming as a matter of course that Hannah must accompany him, she sees painfully and angrily how little control she has over her own life. She is further unsettled by Isaac Martin, a sailor from the Azores who brings his ship’s chronometer to be recalibrated and asks Hannah to teach him how to use it. Quakers are against slavery but hardly free of racial prejudice; Hannah’s sessions with Isaac scandalize the meeting–and though her critics are narrow-minded, they’re not wrong that she is uneasily attracted to a man she has been raised to believe is beneath her. Hannah is by no means a saintly heroine …she is quick to judge and slow to see anything that can’t be observed through astronomical instruments. In spare yet luminous prose, Brill shows Hannah achieving emotional and spiritual growth to match her intellectual gifts… Brill’s realistic, poignant conclusion gives her appealing protagonist almost equal portions of happiness and sorrow….Probing yet accessible, beautifully written and richly characterized: fine work from a writer to watch.

“Brill has created a compelling and likable character in Hannah Price; it’s easy to root for her to find her comet and acknowledge her feelings for Isaac. Hannah’s search during a period of great discovery and advancement in astronomy, as well as her relationship with Isaac amid widespread abolitionist sentiments, adds up to a stirring historical drama,” says Booklist.

“A well-drawn love story can dominate any novel, but Brill manages to weave many threads through her story. Nantucket is carefully and lovingly drawn…Siasconset roses in June, the movements of plovers, the million shades of grey, “slate, mourning dove, granite, thistle.” The Society of Friends, once a large part of the population …is fading midcentury and with it a way of island life. …Brill also captures the thrill of this age of discovery … she lets us see how the forces at work in the world were also at work inside Hannah and Isaac….Destiny is tricky to pin on the page and can swamp a good novel. Brill does an excellent job balancing the love story with the importance of Hannah’s success for future generations of women,” says Susan Salter Reynolds in a Barnes & Noble review.

When is it available?

Amy Brill’s novel is on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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