Final Week: Stella Bain Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final 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. 208-end.

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, Week 2, and Week 3.

Serena: Wow, this book packs a lot in it!

Were you surprised by the outcome of the court hearing? I was but not overly so. I think there was some foreshadowing about how the term “shell shock” would not be received well.

Anna: Yes, it does! It was so hard for me to stay quiet about this last section of the book when we were discussing last week’s section. I had to keep reading since last week’s section ends right before the outcome of the court hearing, and I just had to find out what happened.

I thought the judge was leaning in Stella’s favor, especially since he didn’t seem to be too happy with Nicholas and his lawyer, and then August’s letter put a damper on all that. I had a feeling that would factor heavily into the judge’s decision, especially since the term “shell shock” was still so new at the time, and given that August thinks Etna may be the first woman diagnosed with the condition. I felt bad because August really thought he was doing a good thing with that letter.

Were you surprised by the revelation of Phillip’s sexuality? I wasn’t shocked by it, to be honest, but I was more shocked with Etna immediately turning to August and indicating that he was the reason she went to England. That confused me a bit because not too many pages before that, she mentions that seeing Phillip was the real reason she was going there. That being said, I really wasn’t surprised that Etna and August ended up together. I think they were well suited to one another.

Serena: I wasn’t really surprised by Phillip’s sexuality honestly. He seemed like he loved her but more in a way a brother loves a sister. Doting on them and protecting them, like he does with Etna. I do think that his falling out with his brother helped distance him from that sense of family, which may be why he readily clung to Etna — especially when he saw how passionate she was when in love.

I think August thought the letter would help, but the judge had the very opposite reaction, which isn’t hard to fathom given that she did abandon her kids in the first place.

As for Etna, I still cannot figure her out. She says one thing and then does another. She says that Phillip is the reason she was going back to England, but turns around and tells August that he was the reason. Perhaps I read too much into her comments about Phillip, but I did sense something sexual between her and August from the get-go, even though he was married.

Anna: I sensed something between them, too, from the very beginning — especially when he woke her up from that nightmare. At least they didn’t act on those feelings while Lily was alive. That might’ve clouded the whole ending for me.

Speaking of the ending, it definitely didn’t pack a punch like in Shreve’s other novels. But I was okay with it, because there was so much heaviness earlier on with the war, Etna’s memory loss/trauma, and the court case, that I was glad that the very end showed that she and August lived a fairly uneventful, happy life after all that. I didn’t have too much of a problem with Etna, given what she’d gone through. Maybe once the unfinished business between her and Phillip was dealt with, she could finally face her feelings for August? What did you think about the ending?

Serena: The ending left me a little let down. I prefer her punchy endings, and I felt like this one was rushed and glossed over. I feel like all the sort of “removed” passages about objects in the house and the events that pass were told to me not shown in favor of expediency. I felt cheated in a way.

I’m not unhappy that Etna’s life became calmer, happier, and independent, while yet full of family and love.

What about you?

Anna: I didn’t mind the ending. I sensed that Shreve went that route because Etna had endured so much previously, so seeing her living out the rest of her life in contentment with August was satisfying. I didn’t mind her glossing over what happened to the other characters so much because they weren’t a huge part of the story, and it’s almost like the story ended that night she and August were first together, when she finally realized that their intimacy was so much different and better than what she had with Nicholas. So I didn’t feel cheated in the end. I closed the book knowing that Etna found what she’d been looking for.

Or maybe it’s because Shreve sort of kept readers at arm’s length through much of the book, and I sort of became used to that by the end. I knew enough about Etna and August to care about them, and Shreve didn’t leave any loose ends, so I was okay. Actually, with all that they had endured during the war years, I would’ve felt cheated if there had been some big twist that turned the whole story upside down at the end and just left it like that (which is what I almost expect with Shreve’s novels, at least her older ones, i.e. The Last Time They Met). It’s almost as if she’s showing us how ordinary, flawed people can do extraordinary, out-of-character things during wartime, but when that’s all over, they’re just normal people who made mistakes and they likely will go on to lead normal lives. I don’t know.

Serena: I see your point. I just felt let down by the ending. It was flat to me. I think I would have preferred it to end when she got together with August. I think I could have lived with that and assumed she got her kids back into her life and was happy.

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 October, for a read-a-long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter for WWII.

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