The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

Amy Brill's first novel is set on Nantucket, primarily from 1845 to 1847. It is inspired by the writings of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer, who discovered a comet in 1847 and earned a medal from the King of Denmark for that discovery. Amy Brill, taking a day trip to Nantucket, read a flyer about Maria Mitchell. "What, I wondered, would compel a teenage girl to spend her nights alone on the roof of her house, staring at the stars for hours on end, sweeping the skies in hopes of spotting something so few people had the opportunity to see."  

Based on fifteen years of research and writing, The Movement of Stars is Brill's imagined answer to her own question. Hannah Gardner Price is a fictional young woman whose goal is to discover a comet, to earn her own living, to live an educated and independent life. Hannah, age 24, lives with her father and her twin brother in an old Nantucket home with a "widow's walk", built for women to watch for the return of the whalers, but which Hannah and her family use for astronomical observations.

Hannah is especially talented. The Bonds, family friends, father and son, who run the great observatory at Harvard, praise her skills and aid her in her search and observations. Her father supports Hannah's talent, but tensions develop when he, after years as a widower, considers marriage and a move to Philadelphia. A young unmarried woman can not live alone. Further tensions arise because her independent scholarly interests are contrary, for a woman, to the Quaker way of life lived by her family and most of their neighbors. When Hannah meets Isaac Martin, a young dark-skinned whaler from the Azores, she takes him as her pupil and their mutual intellectual interests lead to a developing relationship which the islanders dislike. How Hannah develops as a young woman and in her relationships with the community, how she develops as an astronomer and in her intellectual life, are at the core of this novel.

Adding to the interest of the book is the excellent writing, which conveys a sense of the historical time, the Quaker community, the island of Nantucket, and the Harvard Commons. I could picture the night skies, the beach, the wharf, the Nantucket Atheneum, the great observatory at Harvard.  Language, setting, and portrayal  of characters are all strengths of Brill's writing. I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading a second novel, which I hope she will write.

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