Week 3: Stella Bain Read-a-Long

Welcome to the third 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. 139-207.

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 and Week 2.

Serena: Wow, what a section! This case seems to be moving very quickly, and it makes me wonder how different the legal system must have been back then to have a case move so quickly.

What did you think about how quickly Etna and her daughter Clara reconciled?

Anna: It was such an interesting section, that I must confess I went ahead and finished the rest of the book.

I wonder if the trial actually happened that quickly. Shreve doesn’t really indicate the passage of time, other than at the beginning of each section. It does seem that Etna spent quite a bit of time in Florida with Clara before heading up north to be with Nicky. But if it was quickly, I think it’s because Clara is older and she saw what her mother went through, even being called upon by her father to lie. So I don’t really think her parents’ problems went over her head, not at her age.

We got our first glimpse of Etna’s husband here, and what did you think of him?

Serena: Ah, Dean Van Tassel, what a stuck up, self-important ass! OK, now that I got that out of my system. Clearly he didn’t really love Etna — maybe just thought he was because he doesn’t know the difference between love and lust/obsession.

You really feel for Etna and her situation when you learn more about her husband during the course of the trial. He really wanted things to be his way and only that way. I can see why she would feel stifled. I do like how Shreve portrays the domestic as well as legal struggles of women during this time period — even though she freely volunteered at the front, she’s still constrained domestically.

Anna: I loved watching him and his lawyer get put in their places by the judge. I have no idea how Nicholas really felt about Etna; we just hear Etna discuss his inability to distinguish love from obsession. I would’ve liked to see something from his point of view because I just see a man who wants to control every aspect of his life; I’m not even sure why they married. His absence from the court room emphasizes his self-importance on the one hand, but it prevents readers from seeing his reaction when the lie and the rape are discussed.

I can’t imagine being in Etna’s position, where you’re only a wife and mother and unable to have any creative outlet. I can see why she needed the cottage, “a room of one’s own,” so to speak. Shreve really does cover a lot of ground when it comes to women and their roles in the family and society at large in the early part of the 1900s. I think this novel would make for a great book club discussion!

The shell shock diagnosis seems difficult for Etna to process, despite what she knows about it from her work at the front. Since this section ends prior to the outcome of the case, do you think August’s letter explaining Etna’s time as Stella Bain will help or hurt her case?

Serena: I honestly don’t know if August’s letter helps or hurts her case, but I would presume it would be helpful as he had first-hand knowledge of her care, but as he’s not really a specialist in the field, I’m unsure.

I do wonder about the passage of time, especially when she says Ferald, one of the witnesses, didn’t seem any older, even though she hadn’t seen him in three years. She’s only been away for three years, but her time at the front and her time without memory seem to have been longer than that to me. I think in that aspect Shreve has done really well to demonstrate how much can happen in such a short time, even things that she can’t remember. I wonder if that’s a fog of Etna’s memory coming into play. The time frame seemed longer to me, but it was only three years.

I wonder if August will make a reappearance in her life or if Mr. Asher, who had to have his face reconstructed, will be heard from again?

Anna: I like when I know how much time has passed, so I’ve sort of had to force myself to just go with the flow here, especially since much of the story is told in fits and starts and requiring some patience on the part of the reader. I’m sure that is intentional, given the book’s focus on memory and the way the brain processes things even when it is not fully conscious of them.

There definitely hasn’t been closure in her relationships with August and Phillip, so it would be safe to say that they appear in the next section. I don’t want to say too much since I read ahead, but given my schedule for the upcoming week, it’s a good thing I did.

Anyway, I was surprised how many different directions this novel has gone, from the front in France to the Admiralty in London to a courtroom in New Hampshire. There are just so many layers to this story.

What aspect of the book has interested you the most so far?

Serena: My favorite parts (if I can use that terminology) were at the front when she was aiding those in need and driving the ambulance. I did like her time outs with Asher at the front too, there was a mystery there, which I don’t think has been resolved. I know what his feelings might have been about Etna, but I certainly don’t know what hers are or were given that she never expressed them fully and has since regained her memory.

The court room stuff I can take or leave, though it was nice to see her interact with her kids, but I still would have liked her to focus on her memories of their times in the garden. That would have rounded out the picture for me.

I’m looking forward to finishing the next and final piece.

Anna: I agree that the war-related parts of the story are the most interesting, but the court room stuff really gives readers a fuller picture of Etna and what prompted her to go there in the first place.

I can’t wait to discuss the last section with you!

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 final week’s discussion on Aug. 29, when we will discuss the final section of the book, beginning with page 208.

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