Marne, March 1916. A woman awakes in a French military hospital, injured, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Her uniform is that of a British VAD. Her accent pins her as an American. She senses that she may come from an unhappy place. The name Stella Bain comes to her.
When she recovers, her skills as a nurse’s aide and ambulance driver return, but only snippets of memory. She feels the Admiralty in London holds the key to the mystery. In London, she is found by Lily and August Bridge, who take her in. August is a cranial surgeon who offers talk therapy and other assistance to help her recover her memory. A friend from the past indeed recognizes her – she is Etna Bliss. Her memories flood back. She must return to America to confront her old life: a cold, abusive husband and two children.
Many things about Anita Shreve’s novel work. Many things miss the mark.
Several novels explore the effects of shell shock on soldiers in the trenches. Logic dictates that the horrors of war would also have an impact on those witnessing the war close by. Stella Bain is a rare look at a woman with shell shock. It was a condition new to the medical community and to the general public … hard to understand for those who were not part of the war. Women were more likely to be diagnosed with hysteria.
Shreve gives a good overview of the condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She shows the different attitudes toward it in the UK (where doctors were finding ways to treat it) and the US (where there was more ignorance and scepticism), as well as the gender differences in treatment. Her damning descriptions of Freudian therapy are entertaining.
What Drove Me Nuts (Spoilers ahead!)
So much of the plot relies on coincidence to move forward. Wandering around London, Stella just happens to collapse in front of the home of a cranial surgeon who wants to dabble in talk therapy. Lily conveniently dies in childbirth, leaving the inevitable romance between Etna and August free to blossom without that particular moral ambiguity. (And let’s leave aside the grey area of when the line was crossed from doctor-patient relationship to personal relationship.)
While the big picture of war is suitably described, there are some significant historical inaccuracies. On Stella’s visit to the Admiralty in January 1917, the receptionist is wearing a Wren uniform. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) was formed only in November of that year.
Would a woman with signs of mental illness, who has deserted her husband and children, really be granted custody in the 1920s? Highly unlikely that a judge would be sympathetic.
Stella Bain is fine read without critical analysis. The details got in the way of my fully enjoying the big picture.
Stella Bain is the North American title. The novel is published in the UK and Australia as The Lives of Stella Bain. Shreve’s earlier All He Ever Wanted tells some of the same story from the viewpoint of Etna’s first husband, Nicholas van Tessel.