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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

 I've mentioned that I've read a couple of early books by Shreve that I liked, but didn't love.  When I was offered this ARC, my expectations were not really that high, but perhaps because this is set in a period that has long interested me, I was pleasantly surprised with Stella Bain.

My interest in WWI began in adolescence when I fell in love with the poets of the time, especially Sigfried Sassoon, e e cummings, and Wilfred Owen.  Owen definitively captured the horror of that particular war and the obscenity of mustard gas, and his Dulce et Decorum Est is, for me, the ultimate description of the abomination and waste of trench warfare.

I have also enjoyed the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd and the Maisie Dobbs mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear that cover not only the appalling loss of a generation of young men, but the terrible aftermath on both soldiers and civilians.  Both series have focused on the effects of shell shock, the disfiguring injuries, and the emotional burdens of soldiers, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers....

The total number of British killed and wounded in the Great War:  2,367, 000 --from a country about the size of one of our states.
The total number of U.S. killed and wounded:  321,000(via Casualties of World War I)

So...on to the review.  Enough of the digressions.  

Stella Bain  is a novel of WWI and of a woman's attempt to gain control of her life. When an injured VAD is brought to a field hospital in France without any identification, her uniform reveals that she is a nurse.  The woman, however, has lost her memory and has no recollection of the circumstances of her former posting, her injury, her name, or her past.  

She decides her name is Stella Bain, but she isn't certain.  Her accent is American.  After her recovery in her new location, Stella's duties as nurse and ambulance driver resume, these activities she has implicit memory of performing, even if conscious memory fails to return.

In her search for herself, she returns to England on leave with an obsessive desire to visit the Admiralty.  She believes that the answer to her identity lies there, but she has no knowledge of how or why.

Exhausted and ill, Stella is discovered in a park by Lily Bridge, whose compassion compels her to bring the physically and mentally overtaxed woman into her home.  Stella's illness develops into pneumonia, a deadly threat in 1916, and her convalescence is slow.

Augustus Bridge, Lily's husband, is a cranial surgeon, and he begins to take an interest in Stella's loss of memory and her determination to discover who she really is.  After discussing her case with psychiatrists, he decides to implement talk therapy.  Stella is a talented artist, and her drawings are part of her therapy as she seeks to understand what the drawings mean. Fascinated by the drawings, Bridge becomes even more invested in Stella's recovery.

I found myself deeply immersed in the story and the twists and turns of Stella's memory. Anita Shreve covers the horror of the field hospitals, the terrible injuries, the effects of shell shock in a graphic, yet compassionate manner.

After Stella's memory returns, the trail leads back to America.  Stella confronts much of what led her to volunteer in the war and works to regain her life in full.

For me, the best aspects of the novel are those dealing with the effects of the Great War; I'm less sure of the custody case in America.    

After reading some reviews, it appears that Shreve's fans are divided about this book.  I thought it was a layered and compelling work.

This was an ARC from Tandem Literary Publicity & Marketing.

Historical Fiction.  2013.  272 pages.


  1. I love books that re-work traditional tales. It is just so part of the original tradition of handing stories down but making them your own as you do it. I shall definitely be looking for this.

  2. I used to read Shreve all the time, but kind of lost interest. Now I just pick her up once in a while. I might have to add this to the list to get, though!

  3. Alex, I wonder if you meant to comment on Red 1-2-3, which does take a traditional tale and kind of knock it on the head.

    Kelly - I lost interest, too, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this novel. It may have everything to do with the time period.

  4. I may have mentioned before that I've only read one book by Shreve, which I loved (although I know it wasn't a favorite of everyone's). This one really speaks to me and since you first mentioned you were reading and enjoying it, I've added it to my wish list. I do like the author's writing and want to eventually read more of her work.

  5. Wendy - I actually have another one on my shelves that I will probably dip into soon since I enjoyed Stella Bain so much!

  6. I feel like I've always wanted to love her books but something always falls short. This story though sounds so good and like you, I really enjoy the WWI stories not to read about the war aspects but how the people at home had to go on. Really looking forward to this one!

  7. Iliana - Exactly the way I've felt about Anita Shreve. I really liked Stella Bain, though!