Hestia Strikes a Match: A Novel
- By Christine Grillo
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Anne Eliot Feldman
- May 18, 2023
An American woman looks for love after the Civil War. The second one.
Hestia Strikes a Match, Christine Grillo’s fresh debut, follows the romantic and ideological ruminations of a fortysomething writer living in a truly divided America that has just endured its second civil war. Juxtaposing intellect, wit, and positivity, this pithy satire sheds an imaginative light on two things that invariably bring people together or divide them forever: love and politics.
Clever worldbuilding sets up the story. It’s 2023, and 12 states have seceded from the Union to form the new Confederated States of America. The remaining Union states fight with the Confederated ones over issues of reproductive rights, gun control, and limited resources. A second civil war, you scoff? This trenchant observation by one of the characters makes it seem plausible:
“The warfare had been quite earnest for years but we were in the habit of giving it names like ‘arson’ or ‘shootings.’”
Nonetheless, the war provides little more than a contextual background for the protagonist’s recently uprooted life. Living in the precarious border state of Maryland, Hestia Harris is newly single. Her husband has left their troubled marriage to join a pro-Union paramilitary group that wants to take back the seceded states. She describes him as “among the traumatized idealists” who want to “crush the traitors.” Yet he frames his flight as pragmatic: “There are good people trapped in those states…and they’re not able to leave.”
The novel comprises seven chapters, each one loosely focused on Hestia’s next new guy. Perusing online-dating apps, she decries the flat sameness of people’s profiles, in which everyone loves travel, laughing, animals, nature, and food, and “nobody likes drama.” But she puts herself out there with energy, meeting a wide range of men, from online picks and old flames to sexual adventurers and tai chi instructors.
When the story opens, Hestia has just taken a job as director of communications at a retirement village in Baltimore. There, she’s tasked with assembling an oral-history project designed to foster community by soliciting residents’ views on the pressing questions of the day. Prompted by her personal priorities, Hestia’s queries focus on the potential antecedents to failed marriages and civil war. One octogenarian resident, the outspoken Mildred, becomes her confidante and best friend. With two grown daughters — one unionist, one confederate — and an addiction to $40-a-pack Gauloise cigarettes, Mildred cheerleads Hestia’s unenthusiastic efforts to find romance.
For fans of Maria Semple’s Bernadette, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, Hestia is just as unique, at once brutally honest, self-deprecating, and committed to forging her own path. But where Hestia Strikes a Match delivers most effectively is in its plainspoken commentary on the politics that fueled the war:
“It’s always racism. And misogyny, the perfect cocktail.”
“America’s polarized because some people like change and some people don’t. And everything is changing. And change is everything.”
“Progressive, conservative, whatever. We all delude ourselves into thinking we’re so rational...But we’re all emotion, all the time. Just pure emotion.”
A conversation midway through the novel between Hestia and a friend reflects the sly humor Grillo brings to the story:
“I’m sure your boyfriend is great but dating is hard,” I said. “And this war makes it harder.”
“You have no idea,” she said, the truth of which smacked me.
I tried to be positive; someday the war will end, I told her.
“But what if the problem isn’t the war?” she asked. “What if it’s America?”
The match Hestia finally strikes in this incisive, only slightly dystopian tale illuminates the truth for all of us: A little love and friendship may be the best we can hope for in these broken but still-United States.
With a B.A. from Colgate University, an M.A. from Georgetown University, both in Russian area studies, and a UCLA certificate in fiction writing, Anne Eliot Feldman has worked in the Library of Congress and the defense industry. She’s completing her own debut novel, about the heart-stopping fragility of cacao beans and true love.