Saturday, October 12, 2013

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 9, 2013

An epic story, set against the backdrop of World War I, from bestselling author Anita Shreve. 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.

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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. 

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"Living with memory loss has meant a life of frustration," Stella says. "How did the soldiers I met in the hospital camp survive memory loss? Did they go mad, as I sometimes think I will? Occasionally, in my room, I want to lash out and hit something with all my strength. Again and again." 
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Anonymous said...

Great review. Sounds like something I would be interested in given it's WWI setting.

Also I don't think I've commented on your blog theme and post layouts. It's absolutely gorgeous - not too flashy not too simple, but with character. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you on both counts!

The book comes out next month so keep your eyes open. :)