Book: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve
Genre: Historical Fiction
Stella Bain wakes up in a French army hospital during the Great War with pain in her head and feet and no recollection of who she is. She knows she has certain nursing skills and can drive an ambulance, but has no clue as to why she possesses these skills. She pieces together that she is an American and has a feeling that the answers to her questions can be found at the Admiralty in London. She attempts to get there and collapses on the way. A kindly woman and her husband take Stella into their home to heal. August Bridge, the husband, is a cranial surgeon who has read much about talk therapy. He and Stella begin regular sessions and when she regains her strength, he takes her several times to the Admiralty, hoping to piece together her past—which she eventually does. Stella remembers her real name, her husband, her children, why she was even in France helping in a war effort before American involvement, and when she was wounded. She then returns to America to face and address the issues she left behind.
There were parts of this book I liked, and some characters I enjoyed, but there were three elements that served to tarnish my opinion.
One was what I’ll call fuzzy accuracy. Stella was an American serving as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), part of a British organization providing field nursing services, particularly during the two world wars. The British are known for encouraging (or even requiring) people to “do their bit” for a national effort. The organizations are disciplined and expectations of those who serve are high. They would not look kindly or the other way when one of their members deserts. Yet that is what Stella does when she goes to England. Yes, she is an American and doesn’t know who she is, but even as an amnesiac, she chose to serve. There would have been consequences for her going UA (or AWOL as it might have been known then)—consequences for which neither she nor the Bridges have any concern. That did not seem likely to me. Another was August Bridge introducing himself as “Doctor.” August is a British surgeon—men in that line of work are called Mr., not Dr. I could see Stella, as an American, calling him that, but he would not have introduced or referred to himself (repeatedly) as such.
The second element is the reliance on coincidence. Etna (Stella’s real name) is friends with a young man before her marriage. Years later, after no contact, this young man is competing with Etna’s husband for an academic position. He does not get it due to machinations by Etna’s rather evil husband and, as a British citizen, joins the war effort. Etna becomes a VAD in hope of finding him and apologizing. Out of all the places in Europe where either one of them could have been assigned, they find themselves in close proximity and she does indeed meet up with him. Later, when she attempts to go to the Admiralty in London, she collapses and is taken home by a woman whose husband happens to be a medical doctor who happens to have an interest in the new methods of treating shell-shocked individuals. All of this is too much coincidence for my taste.
The third element is the one that bothers me the most. Borrowing a term from another book, I’ll call this one an annoying plot device. During Stella’s sessions with August, it becomes clear that they are attracted to each other. August, however, is still very much in love with his wife Lily, with whom Stella is quite friendly. While Stella resides with the Bridges, Lily becomes pregnant. After Stella returns to America, she and August correspond. One of his letters discloses that Lily died in childbirth. How convenient. With the subtlety of a machete, Miss Shreve has used an annoying plot device (Lily’s sad, noble, death) to clear the way for Etna and August with no dishonor or recriminations.
I found Stella/Etna to be an intriguing character. I also greatly liked the man she went to France to find, Philip Asher. I liked the idea of a woman having to deal with repercussions of the battlefield, and I liked Etna’s eventual independence and defiance to her husband. This helped mellow my sharp opposition to the slight inaccuracies, the many coincidences, and the annoying plot device that dampened my enthusiasm for the novel.