Book review: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve


  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 10/13/13 edition (October 13, 2013)
  • 264 pages
  • Women’s fiction / historical fiction


“Shreve’s 17th novel is a tragic yet hopeful story of love, memory, loss, and rebuilding….The novel is both tender and harsh….Shreve’s thoughtful, provocative historical tale has modern resonance.” –Publishers Weekly

Stella Bain has no memory of her past when she wakes up in a hospital bed in Marne, France. It is 1916, and she wears the uniform of a British war nurse but speaks with an American accent. As soon as she is able, Stella sets out for London, where she hopes to find answers. What she discovers-with the help of Dr. August Bridge, who takes an interest in her case-both shocks and startles.

As Stella’s memories come racing back, she must undertake a journey across the ocean to confront the haunted past of the woman she used to be.

In this gripping historical drama that transports us from Europe to America and back again, Anita Shreve weaves an engrossing tale about love and memory, set against the backdrop of a war that devastated an entire generation.

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Meet the author:

Anita Shreve grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts (just outside Boston), the eldest of three daughters. Early literary influences include having read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton when she was a junior in high school (a short novel she still claims as one of her favorites) and everything Eugene O’Neill ever wrote while she was a senior (to which she attributes a somewhat dark streak in her own work). After graduating from Tufts University, she taught high school for a number of years in and around Boston. In the middle of her last year, she quit (something that, as a parent, she finds appalling now) to start writing. “I had this panicky sensation that it was now or never.”

Joking that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejections from magazines for her short stories (“I really could have,” she says), she published her early work in literary journals. One of these stories, “Past the Island, Drifting,” won an O. Henry prize. Despite this accolade, she quickly learned that one couldn’t make a living writing short fiction. Switching to journalism, Shreve traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she lived for three years, working as a journalist for an African magazine. One of her novels, The Last Time They Met, contains bits and pieces from her time in Africa.

Returning to the United States, Shreve was a writer and editor for a number of magazines in New York. Later, when she began her family, she turned to freelancing, publishing in the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine and dozens of others. In 1989, she published her first novel, Eden Close. Since then she has written 12 other novels, among them The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife, The Last Time They Met, A Wedding in December, and Body Surfing.

In 1998, Shreve received the PEN/L. L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction. In 1999, she received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, and The Pilot’s Wife became the 25th selection of Oprah’s Book Club and an international bestseller. In April 2002, CBS aired the film version of The Pilot’s Wife, starring Christine Lahti, and in fall 2002, The Weight of Water, starring Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Penn, was released in movie theaters.

Still in love with the novel form, Shreve writes only in that genre. “The best analogy I can give to describe writing for me is daydreaming,” she says. “A certain amount of craft is brought to bear, but the experience feels very dreamlike.”

Shreve is married to a man she met when she was 13. She has two children and three stepchildren, and in the last eight years has made tuition payments to seven colleges and universities.

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Although written as a novel, this account describes how women began to be affected by shell shock during the first world war. Shell shock was the term used for what we now understand to be PTSD. Nurses who worked side-by-side with surgeons during the war experienced as much trauma as the men who fought in the trenches and the author describes how much they went through without going into excessive graphic detail.

A woman wearing a VAD uniform wakes up with amnesia in France while serving close to the front. Stella Bain, as she calls herself, realizes that she has amnesia and remains unsettled because there is something she has come to France to do but she can’t remember why. Her story takes us to England where, in an attempt to discover who she is, she is overcome by “hysteria” or “shell shock” and is taken in by a kindly couple who help her to recuperate. We later learn of another serious trauma suffered prior to her arrival in France which is the reason for her flight as well as the initial trigger to her shell shock.

An insightful account into how trauma, of varying natures, can cause both a physical and psychological impact to the victim or sufferer.