A young woman has her eyes opened to her community’s limitations—and her own—in television writer/producer Brill’s strong debut.
In the small, tightly controlled Quaker settlement on Nantucket in 1845, 24-year-old Hannah Price’s principal duties are to behave and dress with sober decorum and to find a husband. Though her father has encouraged her passion for astronomy since she was a girl, he’s lost interest in celestial observations since her beloved twin brother, Edward, shipped out on a whaling vessel nearly three years earlier. 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; as her returned brother’s new wife points out, 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: Gaining her heart’s desire to be recognized as a scientist, she also finds the courage to acknowledge her feelings for Isaac. Brill’s realistic, poignant conclusion gives her appealing protagonist almost equal portions of happiness and sorrow, just as she has done equal justice throughout to the passions of the mind and the flesh.
Probing yet accessible, beautifully written and richly characterized: fine work from a writer to watch.