A woman awakens inside a casualty tent in France in 1916. She cannot remember who she is or how she came to be there. Wounded in body and spirit, she chooses the name Stella Bain for herself as she resumes familiar duties as nurse aide and ambulance driver. For some reason she is driven to London to seek out Admiralty House where she believes she will figure out some answers to her situation. She leaves France and is found in desperate circumstances outside a lovely home owned by Dr. August Bridge and his wife, Lily. Stella falls ill with pneumonia and is nursed back to health by the Bridges. Finally, upon visiting Admiralty House after her convalescence, she is recognized and called by her real name. It is then that she begins to recover her memories and to remember what drove her from her home and to the battlefields far away. She begins a course of "talk therapy" with Dr. Bridge who has developed an interest in psychiatry and her reawakened artistic abilities help her make decisions about how to return to claim what is hers and to make amends for her mistakes.
Through the course of what is sometimes a bit of a disjointed narrative, Stella (Etna) moves steadily toward forgiveness of herself and others as well as to achieve her independence and seek the love she was denied. An interesting topic in the book was that of shell shock, seen in so many returning soldiers after the war.
I'd recommend this to any fan of Anita Shreve and to a book club group wanting a novel dealing with the human side of the effects of war in a time when women were not allowed much freedom in their personal lives.
Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for the e-book ARC to review.
on November 21, 2013
In the novel, Stella Bain, author Anita Shreve takes us back into the turbulence of World War I, the declining Edwardian era, and the gender restrictions imposed on women. This absorbing story is about a young woman who worked as an ambulance driver in France. She is discovered shell-shocked and suffering from amnesia; all she can tell anyone is that her name is Stella Bain. But is it? Day by day, as Stella begins to heal, tiny recollections of memories, of locations, of names, flash into her mind. Determined to answer the questions of her past, she is compelled to unravel the secrets of her past, who she really is, and where she came from. What follows is a compelling, engrossing mystery.
The novel embraces strong topics such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, especially as it affected women at the time, the rights of women and societal expectations and norms, while delivering a poignant love story of pain and loss and healing.
Anita Shreve excels at drilling down deep into the human spirit, of unleashing great emotion, and all while telling a riveting story. This is very much a character driven novel, but it also has a touching mystery at its roots that definitely keeps the reader turning the pages. I highly recommend this novel for anyone wishing to cozy up to a deep, insightful story of ultimate triumph.
on November 12, 2013
I'm not altogether sure how to describe Anita Shreve's Stella Bain. The book touches on some absolutely fascinating subject matter, but I think the telling leaves something to be desired.
Though not as powerful as Peter Yeldham's Barbed Wire and Roses, I appreciated Shreve's exploration of shell shock and how she uses Stella to show both the impact it has on the individual and how it was viewed in a society with little to no understanding of the condition. Her presentation pulls at the heartstrings while offering a really nice portrait of the values of this particular era. Unfortunately, I don't think every aspect of this book was as well thought out.
I understand the decision to write this piece in the present tense. Stella is frustrated and confused at not being able to assemble the pieces of her own history and the reader get a very real sense of her dismay seeing the world as she herself does, accepting each moment without a greater sense or understanding of where her story began or where it is going. But that being said, I think this approach creates more empathy for her situation than her character and makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand the woman Stella is.
My other concern regards the custody battle. I think it is great material and that it showcases an interesting contrast when compared to our contemporary family court system, but I think this sequence strayed too far from the themes Shreve explores in the rest of her narrative. Again, great content, but it wasn't as fluid as the rest of the novel and sticks out as being something of an add-on to the greater story.
An emotionally driven fiction of life on the home front. A subtle narrative sure to be appreciated by those who enjoy less confrontational war stories.
on November 23, 2013
I looked forward to this new Anita Shreve book as I have loved her previous ones. What happened? I read it on my Kindle and actually went back to see if it malfunctioned and I skipped a large part of her story. I felt like she got bored with it, as I did, and just decided to skip to 1930, give a summary and quit. Too bad. Too bad. I hope she gets her groove back.
STELLA BAIN by Anita Shreve is a tale of one woman's search for, among other things, her identity. Her quest involves four men who all play a part in this quest. Opening in England in the early 20th century the narrative is one that initially explores the tragic effects of WWI with side trips into the early psychological treatments used in cases of shell shock and amnesia. The book also addresses other subjects like domestic violence and child abandonment with a toe dipped ever so briefly into the subject of gay love.
As a reader who appreciated good historical fiction I was truly looking forward to a glimpse into the "pre-roaring twenties" era in the U.S and England. Unfortunately, the historic backdrop of this time was overshadowed by an improbable story and a "heroine" who is so low key she borders on being just plain dull. Stella's true identity and the back story on how she came to be nursing the wounded in a country not her own turns out to be far fetched.
Also, Ms. Shreve obviously had a difficult time deciding whether she was writing a mystery, a courtroom drama, a happily ever after romance or a piece of historically accurate fiction. In attempting to cover all the bases with a grand slam homer, she ended up losing the game.
If it were not for the fact that the story is relatively short and therefore a pretty quick read, chances are the reader would nod off before ever finishing this less than stellar tale. My nebulous feelings may be attributed to the fact that I have read some pretty amazing historical fiction recently (Mrs Poe by Lynn Cullen, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, Longbourn by Jo Baker and Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck are just a few that come to mind) and by comparison STELLA BAIN just falls flat. If you decide that you still want to read this book, I recommend the library rather that a monetary investment. 2 1/2 stars
on January 12, 2014
I began “The Lives of Stella Bain” confident of enjoying Anita Shreve’s usual excellent handling of plot and character, with a great sense of time and place (usually north eastern United States). The opening is suitably mysterious, with the principal character (Stella) having lost her memory. Over the first few pages we learn alongside her about who she actually is. But once she has identified herself, the reader is somehow left behind as the plot develops. It is almost like watching part two of a miniseries without realising that we missed part one. Certainly many of the interesting things in her life happened before the novel begins, and we are mostly following her attempts to put her life back together. At times she appears to behave irrationally, which makes it hard for the reader to identify strongly with her. I also wonder if the author might be playing games with some of the characters’ names – can we really believe a character called “Meritable Root”? The conclusion of the novel is predictable and frankly a bit corny. Overall, I could not help the feeling that there might be some allegory or personal meaning behind the novel, but this is no use to a frustrated reader.
on December 5, 2013
The structure is sloppy, the writing is tedious, the dialog is wooden, the characters cardboard, the story is mostly described to the reader in hasty fashion as though she doesn't trust her reader to "get it". This book is not worth spending any of your time reading it.
I find myself puzzled and dismayed. I have been fond of Shreve's books in the past; now I question my own judgment. Are they all this bad? However, I would rather read another good book than go back and reevaluate any of her work.
The past year I have read a lot of high quality fiction - I had just finished Gilbert's And Sons preceded by Wally Lamb's We Are Water (especially wonderful) but I can enjoy a good beach read as well. This book doesn't fit in either category - it just belongs in "don't bother".
Hugely disappointing. I'm starting a journey through the NYT Notable Books for 2013 & I can promise you this book will not be included.
on November 20, 2013
I was excited to get this book, stories about WWI being more difficult to come by than those about WWII. However, this novel is not really about the war. Stella, who is not sure that Stella really is her name, wakes up in a French army hospital and is not quite sure how she got there. I assumed that she suffered from a concussion, though it's later referred to as shell shock. When someone mentions the Admiralty in London, she becomes obsessed with traveling there, sure that it holds the answers to her forgotten past.
This first portion of the book is told in an odd first person present tense style that I believe is meant to put the reader inside Stella's head where all she is certain of is this moment. I found it choppy and distracting. Once Stella is in London, she meets the angelic Lily Bridge and her husband August, who decides that he would like to try help Stella retrieve her memory and personality from wherever it has become buried. The style of writing slowly changes to more common past tense, which was a relief.
The story was slow getting to this point and I thought the pace would pick up once Stella experienced her 'aha moment' but it didn't. Instead, we move into a strange disjointed stretch of the storytelling with letters to and from Stella and her visits with remembered family. The reader also observes Stella's thoughts of those she has left behind in Europe.
Finally, the last portion of the book is taken up with a mundane custody hearing that I thought was covered in far too much detail for no real purpose. Without giving away too much, I will just say that the final plot twists and romances left a lot to be desired.
Overall, I found this story rather bland, disconnected, and with little substance that made me feel any emotion for or connection with the characters.
I received this book through a Goodreads Firstread Giveaway. The opinions expressed are my own.
on November 14, 2013
Stella Bain is the first book I've picked up by Anita Shreve. I wasn't sure of what to expect, but with a story that is not only set in France during WWI, but deals with amnesia and the mystery of a woman's past, I figured it would be an interesting read. I wasn't disappointed.
The book opens with the story of a woman who is waking in a hospital in France. Her feet are hurting and, aside from understanding that she is in pain, she understands little else. She doesn't remember her name, or why she was there in the first place. In fact, only certain words seem to resonate with her and it is in following those words that her journey unfolds.
We follow the woman named "Stella Bain" through her time in France, working as a nurse's aid and ambulance driver, to England where she feels a powerful urge to seek someone out there. She doesn't know who, or why, but she knows that she should be there. During the process, she meets a doctor who is familiar with something new that is being diagnosed as "shell shock," and he begins to treat her in the hope that her memory will return.
This book did not feel like it was nearly 300 pages. Instead, I was so completely absorbed in the story, the hours passed me by unnoticed as I read, w ithout a break, from beginning to end. It was so emotionally connected to Stella that I felt her joy and her pain as her memories returned and the story of her life began to unfold itself in front of her again. I loved seeing the perspective of a doctor employing Freud's techniques so soon after they were discovered. And, most of all, as I've been reading quite a few WWI books lately, I enjoyed seeing a different perspective brought - a perspective that used the story of a woman who needed to make amends volunteering to do some of the most dangerous and heartbreaking work in the war.
I was only slightly disappointed by the neat ending; it felt as if the story just kind of fizzled out in favor of a happy ending, and although I understand why Shreve provided that ending to us, it did feel a bit far-fetched. Still, the overall story in Stella Bain was one that was engrossing, informative, and hugely entertaining and I would recommend it to any historical fiction readers.
on May 19, 2014
Sadly, I found this book not only boring but also extremely poorly written. I don't understand how an editor could miss all the mistakes that I stumbled upon. An example, "It took six sessions to explain all that had happened to her abroad and another six to talk at length about her mother and father whom she had not seen since their deaths in the late 1800s".
I also hated the author's sudden use of the present continuous tense at odd places. Other sentences sounded so banal, "Etna thinks how unlucky and lucky this household has been" and on the following page, "You're the same and not the same"
I think the editor read and did not read this book!