Underneath it all is the emptiness of Sabrina’s life, rich, and idle, barren (until she discovers she is pregnant by the errant husband) and purposeless. She reconnects with her good friend, Barbara and her husband Leonard, who have worked their way up from poverty to respectable middle-class life in a new suburban community nearby. The book title comes from an evening spent with this family watching a meteor shower and seems a kind of metaphor for the question of her life–will she spectacularly flame out and fade?
The story moves between discovery and despair as she grope to re-establish some kind of relationship with her aging mother separated from her husband early in the marriage, her ambitious brother who would turn the family land into a subdivision of tract homes, and her husband with whom she fails to reconcile. The story reaches a climax on the night Barbara gives birth, Sabrina sits her other children, and Leonard comes home to a drunken and distraught Sabrina. I will leave it to the reader to discover whether Sabrina flames out or survives and what this means for those around her.
The story, set in the late 1950s, explores the discontents of those who have achieved the American dream yet found it wanting. At another level, Stegner as a writer of “place”, explores the changing landscape driven by car culture with its attendant freeways, suburban sprawl, growing pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats to make way for tract homes. While this latter element is in the backdrop, it also reveals the illusions and follies of the American dream and its inability to give us either good purposes or good places.