On the island of Nantucket, Hannah Price, her twin brother Edward, and their father, Nathaniel, repair chronometers, the instrument used to tell time at sea. Nathaniel also has a banking job for which he often travels off island. In 1845, Nantucket is a whaling hub. As members of the Quaker community, the Prices’ lives, especially Hannah's (women have few rights of their own), are lived according to the Quakers’ strict rules. At 24 Hannah remains single by choice, while most women her age are married and raising families. She spends her spare time studying astronomy and observing the night sky. She dreams of discovering a comet and winning the coveted medal and cash prize offered by the King of Denmark.
"Author Amy Brill combines several themes --- women's rights, closed faith communities, life in an isolated place, practicing one's spirituality, pursuing one's dreams --- and weaves them into a well-researched, well-written and entirely believable story that readers will enjoy because the themes are timeless."
With no advance notice to either Hannah or Nathaniel, Edward ships out on a whaler. He hopes to improve his lot and impress Mary, the woman he plans to marry. Nathaniel feels betrayed by Edward's abrupt departure, and loses all interest in observing the night sky. The closely knit family is shattered by Edward's impulsive action, which Nathaniel considers selfish and inconsiderate. Now Hannah is alone in her pursuit of the heavens until a dark-skinned stranger delivers a chronometer to be adjusted; hoping to improve his nautical skills, he asks to be tutored in astronomy. Nathaniel decides to marry and relocate to Philadelphia where he will continue his banking work. Since Hannah's meager salary as junior librarian would not enable her to live independently on the island, Nathaniel insists that Hannah either move with him or marry, but she has no interest in either choice.
Hannah is intrigued by the soft-spoken Isaac, an intelligent young whaler from the Azores. What begins as an innocent instructor-pupil relationship quickly becomes something unholy and sinister in the minds of the Quaker community members long before the two star gazers are even aware of their feelings. But Hannah has turned down two proposals of marriage --- one from a good friend and fellow astronomer at the observatory at Harvard, and one from her former mentor, a much older man who seemed to want to capitalize on Hannah's growing reputation as an astronomer. She loved neither man and craved her independence more than she cared about financial security.
Life on an isolated island can seem almost suffocating at times and privacy hard to find. Gossip swirls around Hannah, who begins to think that many of her fellow believers are hypocrites, saying one thing yet acting quite differently. Letters from Edward are extremely scarce, and Hannah is practically obsessed with her growing feelings toward Isaac. One morning at Meeting, a few community members speak out quite critically about Hannah's association with Isaac. In defending herself, Hannah responds, "It is my position that the world's people pose no greater or lesser harm that any individual within our own esteemed ranks." She continues, "It is my position that determining the state of one's own spiritual health is best left to each individual." With those words, she walks out the door, her fate sealed. She loses her job as junior librarian and has just cut herself off from her community, which has been the guiding force in her life. And now her father practically demands that she leave the island.
Strong-willed Hannah now is basically adrift. With no job and fewer financial resources, will she remain dependent upon her father? Will she flee Nantucket? Why has Isaac never answered her many letters when he reaches port? What is ahead for Hannah? Will she finally enter a loveless marriage? What about the comet she seeks to discover?
Author Amy Brill combines several themes --- women's rights, closed faith communities, life in an isolated place, practicing one's spirituality, pursuing one's dreams --- and weaves them into a well-researched, well-written and entirely believable story that readers will enjoy because the themes are timeless. This book had its origins in a day trip Brill took to Nantucket 15 years ago. She became interested in Maria Mitchell, America's first professional female astronomer, when she visited the Mitchell childhood home that day. It is this reviewer's hope that other trips inspire additional historical novels by this new author.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on April 19, 2013