In the late 1940’s, women were subservient to men. They were housewives or secretaries, nothing more, but they had their own dreams and could educate themselves if they chose. Often they settled for “husband, house, a mortgage, a baby,” as the words of a song from the Broadway show “Funny Girl” stated. This was the setting and the prevailing situation of the women described in this book until an unspeakable tragedy forced them to step up to the task of survival. Based on a disastrous fire which really occurred in Maine, in 1947, the novel portrays the tragic destruction that was left in the wake of wind-fanned flames as they swept down the coastline for miles.
Grace Holland was a 23 year old dutiful wife who lived with her family in a modest home, seemingly contented, in a place called Hunt’s Beach. However, after the night of the fire, they, along with many other victims, were homeless and penniless, without any worldly possessions. Gene Holland, Grace’s husband, never returned home and was officially listed as missing. He had been working on a firebreak with a few other men who survived, but as time passed, she was not sure if he did or if he would ever return. Their already troubled marriage had begun to occupy her thoughts. Gene had lately been withdrawn and distant. As she took charge of caring for her family and matured, she became more aware of her own capabilities and questioned whether or not she even wanted him back.
When she recovered from the effects of the fire on her mind and body, she remembered that her husband had recently inherited his mother’s large home a few miles away. She moved there with her mother Marjorie, and her children Claire and Tom, feeling a bit like a squatter, wondering if she even had the right to be there since it was her husband’s home, not hers. However, having no place else to go, she had no other choice. When she arrived there, she heard the sound of someone playing the piano in the turret room. Thinking it was her husband who had returned, she cautiously entered. She found, instead, Aidan Berne, a concert pianist who also found himself homeless. Assuming the place was unoccupied, he took up residence there. It fortuitously had a magnificent piano on which he could continue to practice. She invited him to remain as a tenant, and they developed a warm relationship over a matter of days.
As the reader learns of Grace’s heroism and strength, they will sometimes be confused because this seemingly naïve woman is at times worldly, but at other times she is completely at sea. She was a Shrinking Violet or Wonder Woman. I wondered if her state of mind or behavior was actually credible. Sometimes she seemed very unsophisticated and unsure of herself, but at other times she seemed completely in charge, totally informed and independent.
The narrative seemed to descend into fantasyland as events simply fell into place for her. She found a house, then a job, then discovered a fortune in jewels hidden in the hem of her mother in law’s dresses. She learned to drive, bought a car, became involved in a relationship with a stranger, and rejuvenated her relationship with her mother. She suddenly had the ability to advise others far wiser and more educated then she was when previously the simplest of decisions were often beyond her ability. Certain questions were never considered by her very seriously. Shouldn’t she have tried to find out about what of her husband’s estate she would have been entitled to take over? She didn’t know who held the insurance on her completely destroyed house. Wasn’t there anyone she could ask for to help her find out? She didn’t seem to make any effort in that direction, but simply moved into the home of the mother-in-law who resented her completely and with whom she had no prior relationship. If Gene was her husband, weren’t his possessions, left to him by his mother, now in her hands? She didn’t seem to think so. What if he was not missing and recovering somewhere, but had actually died in the fire? How long was she expected to wait for his return? She needed to find a way to take care of everyone but she didn’t want to use what was available to her in case Gene returned and thought she had overstepped her bounds by assuming possession of his mother’s things.
The story became a bit overwhelming as the scars and pain of the fire’s injuries and devastating destruction were described meticulously and a wife’s responsibilities to a husband who had suffered catastrophic injuries was addressed. At times, I found the story almost too gruesome as the bloodcurdling descriptions of the injuries caused by the fire were the stuff of nightmares. Grace wondered if she was going to be a prisoner in her own home or had she always been one and not realized it? I found her to be alternately a genius or a fool, and that detracted from my sense of appreciation for the novel which covered only three years, the time of the fire in 1947 until 1950 when Grace was 26. In 1950, we found Grace visiting with her friend Rosie who had fled to Nova Scotia with her family after the fire destroyed their home too. Without insurance, they had little recourse but to move in with her husband’s parents.
The effects of the disaster upon the community were palpable; in that way the author did a fine job. However, as the story became less about the historic event and more about Grace’s need for love, more about Gene’s bizarre view of love and more about the dysfunction in their relationship, the book seemed to morph into a beach read rather than what I thought was to be an effort to seriously present the history of the tragedy of the firestorm. As the event and its effects on the community were pushed into the background, the romantic interludes seemed to take center stage with what seemed like contrived meetings and/or confrontations. It seemed that everyone Grace met was charmed by her and wanted to help her.
The author obviously researched the devastating effects of the catastrophe and portrayed them well. The reader was deposited right there in the middle of the disaster almost to the point of feeling the ash and heat of the flame’s course, the cold of the ocean where they sought refuge, and the smell of the smoke descending upon them. They were caught unawares, unprepared, and completely helpless. The author has a wonderful way with words. Even the mundane everyday moments of daily life came alive with her descriptions, so the extraordinary event of the fire was that much more of a visual in the reader’s mind’s eye. However, when the perspective of the fire became less of a theme in favor of the perspective of Grace’s love life, when it became a story about the disintegration of a marriage, the dissatisfaction of a wife, the disrespect of the husband who treats her like property and the pompous mother-in-law and up tight mother, the narrative failed me.
There were several things about the book that I wondered about. Why, although the children were old enough to ask, did they never ask for a father who did not return. Why did the author insert a lesbian couple into the story? I could find no reason since their sexual predilection was irrelevant. Why was the subject of racism brought up when referring to a professional who was highly educated, a Native American who was described in disparaging terms by Gene? There was no real reason to include those subjects or comments, especially in the era of this novel, except to possibly impress the author’s own political perspective upon the reader. When this happens, in a totally unnecessary manner, I feel like a hostage to someone else’s politics.
I enjoyed the narrator’s presentation and thought that the reader spoke clearly with appropriate emotion, giving each character his/her own voice. Even though it descended into the realm of a romance novel, becoming predictable, as well, it held my interest because of the author’s writing talent and style. There were no wasted words.