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.

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