Week 2: Stella Bain Read-a-Long

Welcome to the second week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve. For this discussion, we read pgs. 71-138.

When an American woman, Stella Bain, is found suffering from severe shell shock in an exclusive garden in London, surgeon August Bridge and his wife selflessly agree to take her in.

A gesture of goodwill turns into something more as Bridge quickly develops a clinical interest in his houseguest. Stella had been working as a nurse’s aide near the front, but she can’t remember anything prior to four months earlier when she was found wounded on a French battlefield. (from GoodReads)

Beware of potential spoilers.  Check out Week 1.

Anna: Were you surprised by the revelations of Stella’s past? I will say it was difficult to get used to thinking of her as Etna!

Serena: I liked how Etna Bliss was an anagram for Stella Bain (I think that’s the right word). I still call her Stella in my head. I kind of figured that she was American, and that she escaped from her (abusive) husband. I wonder about her reasons for coming to WWI’s front lines, simply to find a sibling of her former lover to make amends. That seems odd to me, though maybe it was just an excuse because she really wanted to be away from her husband. I’m also questioning her character now that I know she left her kids behind, particularly her daughter who was abused by the father, or was she? Somehow I’m not sure if that’s true.

Anna: Yes, that was interesting how the name was twisted (no idea if it’s really called an anagram, should look that up lol), sort of indicating the weird ways our minds work under duress. I wasn’t too surprised about the lover and the abusive husband, given the pictures she had drawn and shown to Dr. Bridge. I think what’s lacking in this section is details. We know so little about her husband, just fragments, which may be because of how she was remembering things, but that does make it difficult to truly understand why she went to France in search of Phillip.

I didn’t really question her character so much for leaving her kids behind, per se. We don’t know exactly what happened between her family and Phillip, so her guilty conscience may have been heavy enough to prompt her leaving. If she was abused, she may not have been thinking straight anyway, and on top of that, she lost custody of her children, so she may not have been able to see them anyway. I just hope more details are revealed by the end of the book.

I wonder why her daughter is in Florida and her son is in New Hampshire, since they’re only 16 and 8. There must be some story there.

I think it’s interesting how many women’s issues Shreve covers in one book, from their service during WWI and the psychological issues they suffered as a result to domestic violence and parental rights in the early part of the century.

Even though her memory appears to have returned, she’s not done with Dr. Bridge, as evidenced by their continued correspondence. I still wonder if he has something to do with her past, or if Lily’s death just opens up a door for them to become romantically involved in the present. What do you think about their relationship at this point?

Serena: I’m going to say her name is a near-anagram, and it does highlight the mysterious ways in which the brain works after suffering trauma.

I’m not too crazy about the continued correspondence with Dr. Bridge at this point, but that might be because I just don’t “feel” their connection. I mean he helped her, but it doesn’t seem that it was that long of connection and how can she form feelings for someone when she’s still unsure of who she is. Maybe there will be more correspondence that enlightens me and shows their developing connection to one another.

I do like that Shreve is tackling a lot of women’s issues, but it seems like there are too many issues for so short a book. I wonder if she’ll be able to give all of these issues the in-depth attention that they need to make them believable.

I too have wondered how the daughter is so far from her home, her brother, and her father, especially if he got custody. There is something we are missing her, and I’m sure it will be revealed in time.

I’m sort of on the fence about this book right now because we know so little about what happened to Etna and the story seems not to be about her PTSD and her time in France so much as her traumatic experiences at home with her husband and family. Is she like a moth to a flame when it comes to traumatic and dangerous experiences? I wonder about her.

Anna: Near anagram is probably best because it definitely isn’t a true one.

I’m not going to write off Dr. Bridge just yet. I’m wondering if Etna/Stella will be able to help him through his grief like he helped her recover her memory? There must be a reason for him to continue to play a prominent role in the book.

Already the book seems to lack the necessary details, but I’m going to reserve judgment because Shreve has been known to pack a punch at the end. I’m still not sure what to make of Etna, but at first I thought the book was veering away from the war and the PSTD, but then it went back and with more description about her duties there. Is she suffering from war-related or abuse-related PTSD or both? Hopefully, we’ll get more of an idea as the book continues, because at this point it seems like her wartime service is finished…but America has yet to enter the war.

So far, despite the lack of details, I like the book. I like that Shreve is keeping me guessing about Stella/Etna and how all the pieces fit together. I just want a little more clarity by the end.

Serena: I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Dr. Bridge.

I think she’s probably suffering from a lot of PTSD all around. At one point, I think she says to Dr. Bridge that she can’t feel normal because she doesn’t know who she is and that even once she does know who she is, she may find that she doesn’t like the person she was. I wonder how she is feeling about herself now?

I think that the distance provided by the POV is part of my issue with the book. I feel like I don’t get enough insight into Etna’s character; I’m just an observer of her struggles with little emotional investment. Part of that also could be because she doesn’t know who she is or was, and we’re kept in the dark about the full story. I still wonder how she feels about her true identity now — to me she seems a little “too” perfect.

Anna: Hmm, I don’t see her as being too perfect. I see her as very troubled, stumbling about life after the loss of her children. She asks to be dismissed so she can go home, and when that request is denied, even though there’s nothing technically holding her there (well, aside from travel money), she stays. Sometimes she seems like she’s truly getting something out of her experience of helping people even when there isn’t much help to provide, but other times it seems like she’s there solely on the mission to find Phillip. And even that seems unresolved, despite having found him. There seemed to be something between them, especially on his side, but then all that was interrupted by their injuries.

You’re right that we don’t get much insight into her character, but at this point I think it’s intentional because of the memory loss. I wonder if the letters between her and Dr. Bridge were supposed to let us inside her head somewhat, so I wonder if the letters will continue. I hope that we’re able to become more connected to Etna/Stella as her story is fleshed out. I, too, am curious about what she thinks about herself now that she remembers. She does hint at entering into a custody battle in one of the letters, so maybe now that she’s had the experience in France, she’s going to move beyond the mess in her past and do what needs to be done for her children. Maybe that’s where we’ll find out the truth about her, whether there really was abuse, etc.

Serena: Maybe she seems perfect to me because she goes to war to make amends for something her husband did, because she keeps herself at a distance from Dr. Bridge while his wife is alive, because she cares for the sick even after she decides she wants to leave, and because others (like Phillip) seem to view her that way.

I do think it will be interesting to see how her experiences in France will prompt her to tackle her troubles at home. I’m still looking forward to the next part.

Anna: I see your point, but none of those things struck me that way. I just felt a lot of pain and guilt from her past prompting her decision making, and I wondered if Phillip’s observations of her and his brother all those years ago created this ideal for him of true love and clouded his judgment of her and whatever happened back in New Hampshire. I can’t wait to see how this all plays out. It’s becoming difficult for me to read the book one section at a time.

What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

Also stayed tuned for the third week’s discussion on Aug. 22, when we will discuss pgs. 139-207.

Week 1: Stella Bain Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve.  For this discussion, we read pgs. 1-70.

When an American woman, Stella Bain, is found suffering from severe shell shock in an exclusive garden in London, surgeon August Bridge and his wife selflessly agree to take her in.

A gesture of goodwill turns into something more as Bridge quickly develops a clinical interest in his houseguest. Stella had been working as a nurse’s aide near the front, but she can’t remember anything prior to four months earlier when she was found wounded on a French battlefield. (from GoodReads)

Serena:  What are your first impressions of the novel so far?

Anna: So far, I really like the book, but I’ve long been an Anita Shreve fan. I like that it’s more than just a book about the psychological impact of war, that there’s a bit of mystery, too, when it comes to Stella’s past. But what I really like is that Shreve focuses on the women who served and how they were scarred by the war. It’s easy to forget that they were in the thick of it, too.

Serena:I love Anita Shreve too, and this book so far has my attention. Stella has it rough waking up in a field hospital without any memory of her past and pulling a name out of thin air. I wonder if that’s even her real name or someone else’s. I like that she’s still concerned for the soldiers even in the midst of her own crisis, which shows her training transcends her current memory loss. It’s like something she’s been trained to know and hasn’t forgotten. I found that fascinating.

Dr. Bridge seems like an odd sort, like he’s interested in Stella, but I am hoping its merely in a professional way. What are your impressions of him?

Anna: On top of remembering her training, she also remembers how to draw. I find it interesting that the most pressing memories have to do with a garden, and connected to her training maybe, the Admiralty.

Dr. Bridge [just checked that it is Bridge, not Bridges, I couldn’t remember] does seem odd, especially how he takes on Stella’s care when it’s obviously outside his field of expertise. It makes me wonder whether there is some connection between the two that she doesn’t remember, especially since she ended up near his house in the first place. I have a feeling that their relationship will stray into unprofessional territory, and that makes me sad since Lily was so nice to her when she was ill. I’m sure there are connections there that haven’t yet unfolded.

Serena: I wonder about that too … his motivations seem to be professional curiosity, but at the same time, it is outside his medical expertise — and everyone else is way too busy with male soldiers and their issues. Seems a bit convenient for him, but she’s unlikely to question it since she can’t remember anything.

I am leaning toward them having a prior connection as well — perhaps they had a relationship before now — and he’s trying to see how much she remembers or if she’s there to ruin his marriage, etc. Ok, that’s a little soap opera-like.

Lily is so nice, and I wonder if that’s because she has not other outlet for her nurturing skills other than those soldiers. It is interesting that she was great athlete when she met her husband. I wonder how much that will play into it.

One thing that has been bothering me is that Stella seems to have been “on leave” for some time without any repercussions from the French military. Do they know where she is? Do they assume that she’s remembered where she came from and returned there? Or did they not have those mechanisms in place to track down “missing” staff?

Anna: I also wondered how she was able to be gone from her post in France for so long. But maybe they wouldn’t even be able to track her down, given that the nurse who first spoke to her said she was just left outside the tent by someone in a cart. (There has to be a story in that!!) I wonder if they don’t even know who she is.

As for a prior connection between Stella and Dr. Bridge, it might be soap opera-like, but that wouldn’t be too far off for a Shreve novel. I think her books are more about the twists and turns and shocking endings than whether such a connection is overly dramatic.

Serena: I think you’re probably right that the overly dramatic romance is typical of Shreve, but I love the twists and turns in her writing.

There is definitely a mystery in this one, pretty early on. The Admiralty is one fragment I cannot wait to see unfold.

Anna: We definitely have only scratched the surface of this novel, and I can’t wait to get back into it. I have so many questions; I want to know the meaning of the garden and the flowers she draws, why she can’t picture the house. I also want to know how she ended up in the hospital tent in the first place, and why she was just left outside like that. I, too, am curious about the Admiralty, and I’m worried about those dark and disturbing drawings of that man. I like Stella, but I’m being cautious about it because I have a feeling that I’ll soon question my opinion of her.

What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

Also stayed tuned for the second week’s discussion on Aug. 15, when we will discuss pgs. 71-138.

August Read-a-Long of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

 

As part of the War Through The Generations 2014 Reading Challenge with a Twist, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long for WWI.

In August, we’ll be reading Stella Bain by Anita Shreve.

Discussion questions will be posted on Friday for the designated chapters.  Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

  • 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’ll be joining us next month for our WWI read-a-long.

WWI Linky

The 2014 War Through the Generations Reading Challenge With a Twist has begun. For July and August, reviews for the WWI should be linked here.

To be clear, you don’t have to read just WWI books now, but any of the books that fit the war categories. We’ll just be posting the linkies for the reviews in the months we designated here.

Welcome to the WWI Reviews linky for July/August:

Looking for the Linky for the Gulf Wars, go here.

Looking for the Linky for the French and Indian War, go here.

Looking for the Korean War linky, click here.

Week 2: War Babies Read-a-Long

Welcome to the last week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of War Babies by Frederick Busch for June.

A short but powerful tale weaving together moral complexity and romantic intrigue, Frederick Busch’s War Babies is the story of an American lawyer in his mid-thirties (Peter Santore) who travels to England in an attempt to tie up the loose ends of his own dark past.  Peter’s father, a prisoner who turned traitor in a Korean War POW camp, might have had something to do with a fellow captive’s death, the father of one Hilary Pennels — now a woman Peter’s age who lives in Salisbury.  When Peter and Hilary meet, they both want information from the other, and more, and find themselves engaged in a wary dance of attraction laced with mistrust.  But it may be a third person, the sole remaining survivor of the camp — a Mr. Fox — who holds the key to the mystery of betrayal that haunts Peter and Hilary alike.  (publisher’s summary)

Because the novel is so short, we’re only hosting 2 discussions for it.  For week one’s discussion, go here.

For this week’s discussion, we’ve read pages 51 through the end of the novel.

Serena: At one point, Hilary tells Peter that Fox likes to talk about the war and that he’s brutal about it. Given that war is brutal in itself, did you find anything else brutal about the way he talked about the war?

Anna: Maybe I’ve read too many war novels, but I found the way Fox talked about the war to be the way an old soldier with bitterness talks about the war. It was brutal, but that was to be expected, I think, when one talks about the war.

Serena: I agree; I didn’t find anything unusual about the way Fox talked about the war because he’s clearly bitter — and understandably so. I think maybe she finds it brutal because of her relationship with him, which I found very twisted. He’s supposed to come back and look after her for her father, but then he’s having a sexual relationship with her that gets twisted up in some kind of revenge scenario he’s cooked up to get back at Peter’s father and even Peter himself.

Anna: I thought this book was many shades of messed up, but I was more disturbed by Fox attacking Peter in the duty free store. He had some weird fascination for Peter’s father that went far beyond hatred for his role in Hilary’s father’s death. I understood the characters in that they were in pain, each feeling some deep loss, but they were portrayed so oddly.

I didn’t like the characters or their stories. I didn’t connect with them at all, and I didn’t care how they fared in the end. The only thing I like about this book was how it shows the scars of war among those who fought and those who didn’t, those who survived and those who were abandoned.

Serena: I have to agree with you; this was a book with a great deal of potential, but it was poorly executed. I think the most interesting character was Fox, but you don’t really get to know him.

I wonder if the third-person POV had something to do with the narration disconnecting us from the characters?

There’s another part in which Hilary talks about the nation of cripples and how we have a duty to recover from the past and the move forward, what do you think she meant by that? A duty to whom? And is she even taking her own advice?

Anna: I was confused by how it was mostly first-person but switched to third person at times and even used second person at one point.

Fox was interesting and creepy. Mostly creepy, though. But it was hard to like because the characters were all over the place. I’m not sure we even really got to know them. Peter’s short trip to England barely scratched the surface. And honestly, I’m surprised he found out as much of the story of their fathers as he did, given that they seemed to spend the entire book in bed.

Honestly, I don’t remember that part about the “nation of cripples,” but I don’t think she’s following her own advice. She seemed to be at first, falling in love or at least in lust with the son of the man who may or may not have killed her father, but that whole scene with her mocking Peter makes me think twice about that.

Do you think Hilary and Peter were in love? What was all that about if it wasn’t love? It seemed so melodramatic and so impossible.

Serena: I don’t think she follows her own advice either, but I think she’s manipulative — case in point, her mocking of Peter, and her jabs at him even before that.

I think Peter was trying to be in love, seeing that there might be something else out there for him beyond thinking about his father’s betrayal. I wonder how manipulative Hilary and Fox were from the very beginning since they seem to be in on some kind of torture scheme where Peter is concerned. Did Fox know that Peter was coming beforehand because of who Peter asked about Hilary’s father? Did she agree to be in on it?

I don’t think she’s in love or even knows how to be in love honestly. It is overly dramatic and ridiculous. And at one point I was thinking that maybe it was that way on purpose to demonstrate how traumatized people can have such heightened emotions and be out of control.

Anna: I agree that she was manipulative, and I actually did feel bad for Peter after he caught her with Fox because he thought they had something in common. I do wonder how much she knew, since I’m still not convinced their meeting up was a coincidence.

I think ridiculous is a good way to describe this story. The characterizations and their relationship were just over the top.

What did you think about Hilary’s anger at her father for not leaving the cave and how it meant that he chose to abandon her? The way she called her father “the hero” throughout the book was really put into perspective after that. We read so many stories of children being proud of their hero fathers, and she really turns that on its head.

Serena: I’m not convinced their meeting was a coincidence either.

I do find it interesting that Peter wants to believe there was some good in his father — and its almost like he would have preferred his father had not come home to be put in jail but remained out there somewhere — and Hilary sees nothing good about her father’s actions.

I think they are both feeling abandoned and maybe for a brief moment they find solace with one another, but that is short-lived.

There’s a point in the latter part that Hilary really turns her own notions about her father upside down — it’s like she’s questioning her own convictions about the matter. It’s after Peter asks why they don’t hate each other, and she says something to the effect of they chose how they wanted to live and die, and “you mean they owe us from the grave?” It’s like she’s trying to convince him that they can choose to not hate each other, but she doesn’t even believe it herself.

Anna: That is probably the most clever thing about the novel, that Peter’s father was a traitor and he wanted to believe he was good, and Hilary’s father saved many of his men and she thought he was anything but a hero. I wonder how much Fox and his weird hold over her affected her feelings about her father?

Serena: I wonder that too, but doesn’t look like we’ll ever find out.

What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

Come back in August for our read-a-long of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve.

Week 1: War Babies Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of War Babies by Frederick Busch for June.

A short but powerful tale weaving together moral complexity and romantic intrigue, Frederick Busch’s War Babies is the story of an American lawyer in his mid-thirties (Peter Santore) who travels to England in an attempt to tie up the loose ends of his own dark past.  Peter’s father, a prisoner who turned traitor in a Korean War POW camp, might have had something to do with a fellow captive’s death, the father of one Hilary Pennels — now a woman Peter’s age who lives in Salisbury.  When Peter and Hilary meet, they both want information from the other, and more, and find themselves engaged in a wary dance of attraction laced with mistrust.  But it may be a third person, the sole remaining survivor of the camp — a Mr. Fox — who holds the key to the mystery of betrayal that haunts Peter and Hilary alike.  (publisher’s summary)

Because the novel is so short, we’re only hosting 2 discussions for it.

For this week’s discussion, we’ve read pages 1-50, ending with “mine and squeezed.”

Please be aware that there could be spoilers.

Anna: What are your first impressions?

I’m finding it hard to get into the story, mainly because the dialogue seems awkward to me, the characters are odd and unlikeable, and mainly because Pete and Hilary’s meeting seems contrived. Does this author seriously want me to believe that Pete travels from the U.S. to England in search of answers from Hilary and he just happens to have an encounter with this woman at the hotel and later in the market and it just happens to be the one woman he’s looking for? And then Pete expects Hilary to believe that he didn’t know it was her?

Serena: I’m having similar issues the the dialogue, which seems disjointed and choppy at times. And the meeting between Hilary and Peter is contrived and their “relationship” is contrived. I’m having issues with this whole thing.

I do think that if this has preoccupied Peter for as long as it seems to that maybe through research he’s found that Hilary could have some answers for him. And crazier things have happened where people have sought complete strangers out for information. That is believable to me, but the way that it comes about here, is so unbelievable.

What do you make of Fox?

I find him to be a traumatized soldier, but I also think that he embellishes. At least that’s what it seems like to me that he embellishes the goodness of his soldiers and those that died. He’s at least believable to me, though his relationship with Hilary is strange.

Anna: I just can’t get past the improbability of their meeting, and then immediately having sex. I just don’t “get” their relationship; it’s like a lot of what would have made it believable was left out. The author seems to give so little details about everything at this point. What was the extent of Pete’s research? What prompted him to seek out Hilary? Maybe Busch wants to reveals these details over the course of the book, but he’s not giving me much to keep me interested in the story.

The whole thing with Fox is just odd. Hilary can’t seem to decide if he’s an overprotective father figure or a pervert, and her change in behavior around him seems without reason and just weird. Again, I think it’s the lack of details.

Fox does seem to go on and on with his war stories, even though he seems to understand that Hilary doesn’t want to hear them. His stories are given all the details, down to the exposed muscle on the Lieutenant’s injury. He seems all over the place, from saying that he doesn’t hold what Pete’s father did against him, then getting very hostile toward Pete at the end of his tirade, but that could be the booze talking.

It’s just a very odd narrative, and I have no idea where it’s going. The weirdness of the characters and the contrived meeting/relationship seems to detract from what should be the focus of the novel: the war and why it compelled Peter to go to England for answers. He seems to believe his father had something to do with her father’s death, and I hope they can stop having sex long enough for the real story to start.

Serena: I found Fox to be the most interesting character, seems like a war vet with the drinking problem, the constant story telling, the overwhelming emotions and roller coaster of them. But he’s there and gone so quickly and then the relationship with him and Hilary is so ill-explained.

I do like that Fox provides the details about the camps and the life there, but it seems like there’s no explanation about the war and what started it or who was involved except the “Chinks,” “Yanks,” and the English.

I really am at a loss in this one. At least it’s short. Maybe this author assumes the reader knows a lot about the war?

Anna: Maybe, because I’m finding it hard to follow all that, and the disjointedness of the narrative doesn’t help when there are few details about the war. I especially am confused about the different camps they mention; if Pete’s father was at a different camp than Hilary’s father and Fox, I’m wondering how the three men are connected. But the way this story is told, being all over the place and not very coherent, It makes me wonder whether the characters and their odd connections will overshadow the war story.

I agree that Fox is the most interesting character, and I think my judgment of him may be clouded by the fact that Hilary talks about him before readers meet him, so I was expecting this odd, perverted man with a weird obsession with Hilary. I’m also glad that it’s short because I am slightly curious about where the story is heading but don’t want to have wasted too much of my time on it.

Serena: I hear you on that. I guess we’ll have to wait to see what comes next. Right now, all I want to know is what happened to the fathers, not Hilary and Peter. That’s an awful thing to say since they are the main characters.

And yes, Hilary’s comments about Fox have clouded my impression of him. But I’m waiting for the second half.

Anna: Of course, the most interesting things to us are the things not being discussed! I guess we’ll have to wait and see and hope it gets better!

What do you think?  Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

**Please join us for the final discussion of War Babies by Frederick Busch on Friday, June 27: Pgs. 51-the end (begins with “We didn’t speak again”)

Day of Remembrance — Memorial Day 2014

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