The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

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T he Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve is a novel set in the era of World War I. It involves the loss of memory, evil, love and the horrors of war.

A young woman awakens in a field hospital in Marne, France. The nurse, Sister Luke, tells her she has been unconscious for two days. Her feet are filled with shrapnel. The woman doesn’t remember her name or anything about her past. The name Stella seems right. From her accent, Sister Luke, who is British, suspects that Stella is American. Stella is wearing a British VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) uniform, but Stella can’t explain the discrepancy. Stella blurts out that she can drive an ambulance. While the nurses’ aide is dressing her feet, Stella remembers her last name, Bain.

It takes a month for Stella to heal before she can resume working as a nurses’ aide. She discovers that she is a talented artist and begins drawing pictures of her surroundings, the other nurses and aides such as herself. Some of her pictures are of grotesque trees and unknown houses. These pictures create a sense of claustrophobia and dread in Stella, yet she continues to draw them.

One day Stella hears a man say the word Admiralty. For days, Stella puzzles over the word and its significance to her. She comes to believe that the Admiralty, headquarters to the British Royal Navy in London, may hold the key to her past. She is determined to go there to look for answers.

In October, Stella is granted leave. She packs up her uniform, sketches and the money she has earned from her portraits of the nurses and aides. She goes to Paris and boards a hospital ship to London. Because of the horrific conditions of the wounded and the chaos at the coast, it is easy for her to don her uniform and slip by officials. She boards a train on the coast with the seriously injured and heads to London. When she arrives in London, she has no idea of how to get to the Admiralty, no food and no water. She walks the streets until she is exhausted.

A woman in a rose-colored suit named Lily comes to her rescue. Lily generously takes Stella into her home, and Stella collapses with pneumonia. It is clear to her hosts that Stella is a woman of breeding and education. The Bridges nurse Stella back to health. Her recovery is slow, but her case intrigues Lily’s husband, August Bridge, a neurosurgeon. Stella appears to be suffering from shell shock, or PTSD.

Shreve describes the battlefield medical conditions in painstaking detail. Battlefield medicine was in its infancy. Many died gruesome deaths, but Shreve emphasizes the courage of the doctors and nurses who worked under primitive and inhumane conditions to save those they could. She also recounts the beginnings of Sigmund Freud’s work in psychoanalysis. Dr. Bridge becomes interested in “talk therapy” and tries to help Stella remember her past using the technique.
When Stella recovers her memory, Shreve switches gears to present a custody hearing in which Stella tries to gain full custody of her children. Stella’s medical condition intrigues the judge, but it is misinterpreted and used against her. As the novel progresses, women’s rights from 1896 to 1930 are shown in evocative scenes that bring the era to life.

The contrast between modern society and the end of the Edwardian era is eye-opening. Shreve explores the plight of a woman striving to be independent and a contributing member of society throughout the novel. She relates with conviction the ignorance of women’s medical problems and the effects of shell shock on its victims. Shreve makes the novel work within the framework of society as it was in the early 1900s without judging the era.

Shreve has won the John P. Marquand Prize in American Literature for her work and has been short-listed for awards. Her writing style is crisp and clean, and her characters are complex with human faults. The Lives of Stella Bain is character driven with an air of mystery that pervades the entire book. It is a compelling exploration of human failure, love and the devastation of war. The novel is commendable for the style and grace of the writing as well as the evocation of an era in which societal expectations of women and their rights were virtually nonexistent.

Different themes are explored throughout the novel, but it is ultimately about love accompanied by pain, loss and healing. With each setback, Stella grows stronger. She is able to surmount the obstacles thrown in her path and ultimately triumphs over all her adversities. She becomes her own woman on her own terms. It is a challenge women still face in our own society. HLM