Shreve’s latest takes on natural disasters, public and private.
The summer of 1947 was unseasonably hot, leading to a drought that had devastating consequences for the state of Maine. Shreve’s novel tells the story of the Great Fires of Maine from the perspective of Grace, a housewife living near the coast. Grace faces a drought of a different kind, in her marriage. Husband Gene, a surveyor, never talks about the war experiences that left him with inner and outer scars, but “the other husbands don’t either.” What is unusual, at least compared to how Grace’s neighbor Rosie describes her love life, is how brutal Gene can be in bed. With two children under 2 and another on the way, Grace’s domestic arrangements are increasingly stressed as blistering summer advances. By October, the entire state is a tinderbox; even a dropped cigarette can set a parched lawn ablaze. As wildfires threaten, Gene leaves with a crew of men to dig a fire break. Awakened in the middle of the night, Grace realizes her town is burning. She flees to the seashore with her children and the clothes on her back and spends the night along with Rosie and many others huddled under soaked blankets. After rescue comes, Grace’s baby is stillborn. Now homeless, with the children and her mother in tow, Grace moves into a vacant beach-side mansion which, she thinks, was left to Gene by his late mother, Merle. Except that Gene has been declared missing, and the mansion is not unoccupied: Aidan, an Irish pianist, has been squatting there since the fire disrupted his concert tour. Gene’s absence seems downright salutary. A brief affair with Aidan shows her what Rosie was talking about, and he resumes his tour, promising to return. All the contentedness stalls the novel, until Shreve shakes things up in a way that descends into woman-in-jeopardy territory. The back stories of the main characters are so sketchy that their actions seem unmotivated and arbitrary.
Formulaic plot aside, worth reading for the period detail and the evocative prose.