“Stella Bain” by Anita Shreve; Little, Brown (265 pages, $28)
There’s no doubt that public education has neglected World War I, with history teachers squeezing in a few lectures before launching into succeeding conflicts. Literature has been kinder to the Great War, offering many opportunities to remedy that oversight. Shell shock alone has been the subject of scores of novels (most notably Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy) that remind us how WWI inextricably altered the trajectory — and the mythology — of the heroic soldier.
Now Anita Shreve, the bestselling author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and “The Weight of Water,” has joined the ranks of writers who want to plumb the depths of shell shock’s despair and disruptions. “Stella Bain” attempts to solve the mystery of a woman who regains consciousness in a French field hospital in March 1916 with little memory of her past.
When we meet Stella, “she floats inside a cloud. Cottony, a little dingy.” In a few weeks, a few memories start to return — she can assist in surgery, drive an ambulance.
A British nursing sister thinks Stella is an American. But further clues to her identity prove elusive — until she hears a man utter the word “admiralty” as he speaks of his brother who apparently died on a sinking ship. She ponders its significance — it becomes “a kind of mythic goal” — and decides a trip to London, home of the British Royal Navy’s headquarters, is her best hope. So off she goes, on an improbable quest for answers.
Stella’s journey of self-discovery allows us to encounter the horrors of the first World War, groundbreaking treatments in psychotherapy, early acknowledgments of domestic violence, and the glimmer of first-wave feminism. Shreve even references, briefly, a gay love story. But the historic backdrop and foreshadowing of social revolution cannot overcome a critical shortcoming of her latest tome: It’s difficult to work up much of a sweat over Stella.
Maybe it’s the uninspired dialogue. “‘Living with memory loss has meant a life of frustration,’ Stella says. ‘How did the soldiers I met in the hospital camp survive the affliction? Did they go mad, as I sometimes think I will?’” Maybe it’s all that writing in the present tense, which in certain passages reads like stage directions. Or maybe it is simply this: Despite the extraordinary times in which she lives, Stella is a bit of a snooze.
Shreve takes her time filling in a back story that starts in late 19th century New Hampshire: Stella has a love affair that ends badly, a misguided marriage to a man with a propensity for cruelty, and a friendship with another man who flees the U.S. after his reputation is destroyed by her husband. All of which are preludes to the moment when Stella, whose real name turns out to be Etna Bliss, leaves her family and signs up for duty as a nurse’s aide in France. She must somehow find her friend, now driving an ambulance for the British Red Cross, and make amends.
You might hope for a shattering plot twist midway through the novel or some startling psychological insight or an ending that is not necessarily filled with love and laughter. But you’ll have to find that elsewhere. Stella Bain is a happily-ever-after girl.