Stella Bain

By Anita Shreve

(Little, Brown and Co., $28, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Anita Shreve is known for writing literary fiction with strong female characters. “Stella Bain” is her 17th novel; the others include “Rescue,”  “A Change in Altitude,” “Testimony” and “The Pilot’s Wife,” an Oprah’s Book Club selection,  and “The Weight of Water.” Previously, Shreve was a high school teacher and a journalist in Africa. She also published two nonfiction books: “Remaking Motherhood” and “Women Together, Women Alone,” which reflect her deep interest in women’s lives and issues. She lives in Massachusetts.

What is this book about?

We know about the psychological issues that post-traumatic stress disorder causes in men serving in wartime. Here is a book that examines what happens to women.  An American, who believes her name is Stella Bain, turns up in a London garden in 1916, before the U.S. enters the First World War. She is suffering from what was then called shell shock, and a prominent British surgeon and budding psychoanalyst  and his wife take her in. It’s soon discovered that “Stella” was a battlefield nurse’s aide who has lost all memory of her earlier life. As she slowly recovers, she draws scenes that help reveal her past and soon a complex tale of love and betrayals emerges that explain why she left her family in America and why her life has taken so many strange turns.

Why you’ll like it:

Shreve’s long list of popular novels demonstrate that she is a writer who has the knack for engaging a female audience with her carefully drawn and deeply imagined characters. She also is well-versed in the Edwardian era, which means fans of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” will be naturally drawn to the period and concerns illuminated in “Stella Bain.” In other hands, this kind of book  would be classed as a historical or romantic novel, or both, but Shreve lifts it higher into the realm of literary fiction.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Shreve’s 17th novel is a tragic yet hopeful story of love, memory, loss, and rebuilding. A young woman wakes up with amnesia in a battlefield hospital tent in Marne, France, in 1916. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, and she thinks she knows how to nurse and drive an ambulance. As she recovers, she returns to duty in this new environment, caring for the wounded and dying. When she arrives in the city exhausted and destitute, she’s discovered in a park by a doctor’s wife, who takes her in. The doctor, Augustus Bridge, is a cranial surgeon with an interest in psychiatry. Stella becomes a “quasi-patient”; he finds a way to get her into the Admiralty, and, when a former friend recognizes her by name, her memories return, including the fact that she has children—and the reason why she left them. The amnesia and its cause are only part of the story; the lack of understanding at the time of the consequences of witnessing the horrors of war, for both men and women, also plays a key role. The novel is both tender and harsh, and the only false note is the use of present tense, which prevents the reader from being pulled in more closely. Shreve’s thoughtful, provocative, historical tale has modern resonance.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A wife risks every chance of domestic happiness by heading to the front long before America’s entry into the Great War. A woman awakens in a field hospital in Marne, France, in 1916. Fragments of memory surface: She recalls that she was serving near the front as a nurse’s aide and ambulance driver before suffering a shrapnel wound and shell shock and that her name is Stella Bain. Driven to seek answers about her identity from the Admiralty in London, she travels there and, ill, is taken in by August Bridge, a cranial surgeon, and his wife, Lily. Experimenting with the new field of psychoanalysis, August strives to restore Stella’s memory: She draws a series of scenes that provide clues, not least to the fact that she is an accomplished artist. At the Admiralty, she is recognized by Samuel, an officer there, and her past floods back–she is Etna Van Tassel, not Stella Bain. A flashback reveals that Etna and Samuel were young lovers in New Hampshire and that she begged Samuel, in front of his brother Phillip, not to marry another, to no avail. She married a dour Dutch professor, until a baseless scandal he fomented involving their teenage daughter and Phillip drove Etna–and Phillip–to France as a volunteer. Phillip and Etna’s affinity blossoms into affection as the duo, both ambulance drivers, steal moments together amid the carnage and horror of trench warfare. Although the novel’s structure is somewhat disjointed, and the preliminary amnesiac chapters seem gratuitous in light of the full revelations that follow, the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic. Many surprises are in store. An exemplary addition to Shreve’s already impressive oeuvre.”

“Shreve is back with a period piece that will keep readers thinking. In the midst of World War I, a woman finds herself lost and alone in London with no idea of who she is or how she got there. After being taken in by a kind, wealthy couple, Lily Bridge and her doctor husband, August, slowly a few memories return to her. Her name is Stella Bain, and she needs to go to a military location called The Admiralty to find the person who has the key to unlock the rest of her memories. As the story unfolds, Stella does find her identity and the reasons that made her abandon her American family and head off to Europe to help in the war. She ends up in a nasty court battle and eventually meets back up with Dr. Bridge in an emotional conclusion. VERDICT With period pieces on television such as Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife becoming so popular, Shreve has chosen a timely setting. As usual, her plotlines and domestic drama do not disappoint. The masses of Shreve fans will line up for this one, as will some Downton Abbey enthusiasts,” says Library Journal.

“An intriguing character study that delivers compelling mystery without melodrama. Shreve offers a fresh, feminine twist on a topic that’s much in vogue lately-World War I…. Shreve cleverly and movingly shifts between Stella’s two lives, as we learn who she really is. A custody battle, a horrible case of wartime disfigurement, and even questions of women’s rights emerge in this spare but involving novel….Those who read Shreve’s 2003 novel, All He Ever Wanted, will get an unexpected thrill when they put the pieces together,” says former Courant editor Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today.

“Stella Bain Shreve returns to what she does best-describing the thoughts, actions, and feelings of an unconventional woman….As Shreve peels back the layers of memory and exposes the real woman in Stella, she creates a compulsively readable novel….In Stella Bain, Shreve’s writing is spare and luminous, much like her protagonist. She can evoke an intense feeling in just a few words….The extensive dialogue and courtroom testimony move the story along swiftly, and in sections the book reads like a play. Although the story takes place in, variously, the late 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century, Shreve has woven in themes that readers in this century will have no trouble recognizing as worthy and current,” says theToronto Star.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin and Mark Twain branches have this book now.

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