‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

Stella-Bain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

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12 thoughts on “‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

  1. I’ve always found Anita Shreve reliable if you’re after a well put together entertaining and absorbing read, and enjoyed this one, too. Perhaps you know of her already, Kim, but Sue Miller fits a similar niche for me.

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    • Ah, yes, thanks for the reminder about Sue Miller. I read some of her work long before this blog so nothing is reviewed here. I need to see what she’s written in the past 10 years…

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  2. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Shreve. I thought Weight Of Water was stunning …but Pilots Wife underwhelming and Resistance was v weak I thought . This sounds like it might be a return to her form ….so I’m willing to give it a go !

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  3. I read a lot of Shreve’s books a few years ago, but stopped when her more recent books just weren’t doing it for me anymore. But, my mom recommended this one to me when it first came out, and this is the first review I’ve read of it. Sounds like I should give her another go.
    I’m pretty sure I read All He Ever Wanted – I will have to go read your review to see if it sounds familiar.

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    • I think she’s a novelist you can’t really binge on: you need to read them every now and then, not all at once, which may partly explain why it’s been about 5 years or more since I’ve read a Shreve. And I also think you need to be in the right mood. They’re easy to read and don’t tax the brain matter too much. I found this one perfect fodder on a rainy weekend with nothing much else to do…

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  4. I am wondering if anyone else is confused by the discrepancy between’Allhe ever wanted’ and ‘Stella Bain’? Etna dies abroad in the first, and comes home to reclaim her children in the 2nd. I enjoyed both books but wish the stories aligned.

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