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stella bain

Source: Personal library
Rating ★★★★☆

Publisher’s summary: It is 1916, and a woman awakens, wounded, in a field hospital in northern France.  She wears the uniform of a British nurse’s aide but has an American accent.  With no memory of her past or what brought her to this distant war, she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, and that her name is Stella Bain.

As she puts her skills to use, both transporting the wounded from the battlefield and ministering to them in hospital tents, the holes in Stella’s psyche gnaw at the edge of her consciousness.  At last, desperate to find answers, she sets off for London to reconstruct her life.

She is taken in by Dr. August Bridge, a surgeon who becomes fascinated with her case and with the agonizing and inexplicable symptoms that plague her.  Delving into her deeply fractured mind, Bridge seeks to understand what terrible blow could have separated a woman from herself.  Together, they begin to unlock a disturbing history — of deception and thwarted love, violence and betrayal.  But as her memories come racing back, Stella realizes she must embark on a new journey to confront the haunted past of the woman she used to be.

In a sweeping, dramatic narrative that takes us from England to America and back again, Anita Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, and about loss and redemption in the wake of a war that devastated an entire generation.

My thoughts: I really liked how Shreve focuses on the experiences of women during World War I and acknowledges that they might not have been in the trenches but still put their lives on the line and suffered the consequences.  By telling the story from Stella’s point of view when she has no memory, readers see how the war took its toll on her, and through her drawings, Shreve emphasizes the complexity of memory.  The novel is about more than the war and shell shock; it is about the difficulties women faced when they sought independence from the confines of marriage and home.  I might have loved this book, but the ending was a bit flat, though satisfying overall.

Disclosure: Stella Bain is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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stella bainFor the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I will be hosting an August readalong of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, which is set during World War I.  2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, or the War to End All Wars.

It is 1916, and a woman awakens, wounded, in a field hospital in northern France.  She wears the uniform of a British nurse’s aide but has an American accent.  With no memory of her past or what brought her to this distant war, she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, and that her name is Stella Bain.

As she puts her skills to use, both transporting the wounded from the battlefield and ministering to them in hospital tents, the holes in Stella’s psyche gnaw at the edge of her consciousness.  At last, desperate to find answers, she sets off for London to reconstruct her life.

She is taken in by Dr. August Bridge, a surgeon who becomes fascinated with her case and with the agonizing and inexplicable symptoms that plague her.  Delving into her deeply fractured mind, Bridge seeks to understand what terrible blow could have separated a woman from herself.  Together, they begin to unlock a disturbing history — of deception and thwarted love, violence and betrayal.  But as her memories come racing back, Stella realizes she must embark on a new journey to confront the haunted past of the woman she used to be.

In a sweeping, dramatic narrative that takes us from England to America and back again, Anita Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, and about loss and redemption in the wake of a war that devastated an entire generation.  (publisher’s summary)

Here’s the schedule for the discussions on War Through the Generations:

Friday, Aug. 8: pages 1-70

Friday, Aug. 15: pages 71-138

Friday, Aug. 22: pages 139-207

Friday, Aug. 29: pages 208-end

We hope you will read along with us, and even if you’ve already read the book, please feel free to join the discussion!

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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…A series of pictures emerges one by one. An upturned face, the light glancing off his fat baby cheeks, two teeth visible above a glistening pink lip. A wet, naked toddler caught up in a football hold, your son fresh from the bath and giggling. A fragile face, surrounded by the fake fur of his snowsuit hood, standing next to a melting snow fort. Your love for your son feels unbearable. And then you know why these innocent images have come to you at this moment, for innocence is what is lost now. Now that you have gotten the phone call.

(from Testimony, page 15)

Anita Shreve is my favorite author (along with Amy Tan), and I’ve read all of her novels, aside from her latest, A Change in Altitude, which I will be reading very soon. Testimony ranks among the most intense of her books, focusing on a sex tape featuring 4 students at Vermont’s Avery Academy and its far-reaching impact. Shreve opens the novel with the shocking discovery of the tape, and while the graphic sexual descriptions involving a 14-year-old girl might be too much for sensitive readers to handle, Shreve goes all out in showing the seriousness of the incident and its power to shatter lives.

Testimony is told from multiple viewpoints, and Shreve did a great job juggling the many characters. Avery’s headmaster, several parents, and the students involved each are given a unique voice. Their stories move between the past and the present (which is a couple of years after the incident), detailing relationships and connections between the characters. They run the gamut of emotions — shock, pain, sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, even hope. Shreve shows how one event can devastate an entire community and alter lives forever. She successfully covers all sides of the story, delving deep, and while it was easy to keep track of each character, I didn’t feel close to any of them. I was angry with them, and I felt sorry for them at various points within the story, but they didn’t come as alive to me as the characters in Shreve’s other novels.

As a mother, it was hard for me to read Testimony. How well do we really know our children? That’s a scary thing to consider as my daughter inches closer to her teen years. This novel makes me want to lock her up and keep her to myself forever.

Testimony wasn’t my favorite Shreve novel. (My favorites are Resistance and Sea Glass, both of which made me cry.) Although it didn’t have the surprise ending I’ve come to expect from Shreve and the characters didn’t grab me, it is a well-written, intense novel that is definitely worth checking out.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Testimony from Hachette for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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