When an American woman, Stella Bain, is found suffering from severe shell shock in an exclusive garden in London, surgeon August Bridge and his wife selflessly agree to take her in.
A gesture of goodwill turns into something more as Bridge quickly develops a clinical interest in his houseguest. Stella had been working as a nurse’s aide near the front, but she can’t remember anything prior to four months earlier when she was found wounded on a French battlefield.
In a narrative that takes us from London to America and back again, Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, set against the haunting backdrop of a war that destroyed an entire generation.
I very much enjoyed this one- Anita Shreve has an extremely compelling, readable style – like a less-formulaic Jodi Picoult, if you will. Her novels deal with a number of different issues, over a number of different time periods – and what I like (although many readers/reviewers of her books don’t) is that her characters are generally pretty flawed, and make questionable decisions, but you generally want to root for them anyway.
In Stella Bain, the tale deals with an American woman who has volunteered as a nurse/ambulance driver during WW1 (prior to America’s involvement), and finds herself serving in France. However, the story opens with her waking up after some kind of attack, and thus struggling with amnesia. It makes for an unreliable narrative much for Stella as for the reader themselves, as she struggles to figure out who she is, and what her reactions to certain situations/words/thoughts mean.
The WW1 aspect is incredibly interesting, not least for being the least famous of the world wars, and from a woman’s perspective, specifically one who sees as much gore and horror as the men, and is just as vulnerable to attack, specifically as an ambulance driver who evacuates the injured from bombing sites, etc.
I think one of the core interesting issues for me was the examination of shellshock, what we would now call PTSD, in women. This was simply not taken into consideration when it came to women in the war – it was viewed as something only men suffered – even though women such as Stella were exposed to just as much trauma. The therapy sessions and the process of recovering her memories was fascinating, although I can’t vouch for the medical accuracy.
The second half of the book deals with Stella returning home to face her issues, which I won’t detail here because half the fun is wondering what happened at home to cause her to leave. It’s a return to the humdrum of suburbia, although there is still a strong women’s rights element to her struggle.
The supporting characters were interesting in their own right, and there was a HEA that warmed my cold stone heart.
“You strike me as a woman crawling for independence.”
“I’m not sure the world will allow that right now.”