THE LIVES OF STELLA BAIN by Anita Shreve
Details: Reading Group Read
“Hauled in a cart to a field hospital in northern France in March 1916, an American woman wakes up from unconsciousness to the smell of gas gangrene, the sounds of men in pain, and an almost complete loss of memory; she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, she can draw, and her name is Stella Bain.
A stateless woman in a lawless country, Stella embarks on a journey to reconstruct her life. Suffering an agonising and inexplicable array of symptoms, she finds her way to London. There Dr. August Bridge, a cranial surgeon turned psychologist, is drawn to tracking her amnesia to its source. What brutality was she fleeing when she left the tranquil seclusion of a New England college campus to serve on the Front; for what crime did she need to atone – and whom did she leave behind?”
“Can a man possibly care for a woman who is not herself? A woman who, with any luck, might change into someone else? Can a woman who is not herself truly care for another?”
I’m a bit ambivalent about this book. On the one hand I loved the story. I liked the idea of exploring the horrors of World War One through the eyes of a woman. We tend to forget they too played important and often horrific roles in this conflict and it’s about time it was given attention. I also appreciated the various layers in the story and the slow unravelling of Stella’s story and life.
Anita Shreve is a good and accomplished storyteller and The Lives of Stella Bain held my interest from start to finish. Having said that, I also found myself a bit underwhelmed with The Lives of Stella Bain. From the moment I started this book I had problems losing myself in the story. Stella’s tale is told in a detached manner and as a result I felt removed what was happening to her.
Initially I hoped the detachment would diminish as Stella’s memory returned. And, if the tone of the narration had shifted from impersonal to more personally involved as Stella returned to who she was and remembered why she found herself in the situation she was in, I would have considered it a masterful stroke of storytelling.
As it was, I felt I never got the opportunity to connect with Stella. She started off as and remained a rather one dimensional character in an interesting but rather flat story. It is quite possible I missed something but to me this felt like a missed opportunity. On the other hand, I can’t deny the story almost read itself and despite my lack of involvement in the story, I had no problem staying with it and finishing this book.