Week 1: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read through Chapter 24.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

Serena: What are your initial thoughts on the more surreal and real elements of the novel so far?

Anna: I can’t wait to find out more about why Cacciato left the war in the first place, but I was surprised by how surreal the novel is.  The shift in the time line between chapters was pretty jarring at first, but I do like that O’Brien goes back to fill in the gaps from the very first paragraph of the novel where he lists all the soldiers who died.  I’m still waiting to find out how the chapters in the observation post fit into the story, as they seem to occur after the whole business with Cacciato ends, though how it ends is still anyone’s guess.

At first the shifts in the time line had me confused, but I’m starting to understand the structure more.  I’m enjoying that I have no idea how it’s all going to play out.  However, the whole mission of finding Cacciato is a bit bizarre and hard to buy into, especially once they cross the border into Laos and seem to be more like civilians on vacation.  Of course, I can understand them looking for a way to escape the war, even if only for a little while.  I find myself just trying to go with the flow at this point.  It seems like a lot of the novel is about Paul Berlin and what at this point appears to be a breakdown in his mental state.

What do you think about it all?

Serena:  I think I’m at an advantage because I remembered parts of the novel being surreal and dream like — almost like a fantasy.  I think that at this point, Paul Berlin has definitely had a break with reality and perhaps all the stuff about Laos and “being on vacation” is just a fantasy he created to replace what really happened on the mission to get Cacciato.

All of these men in the unit seem to be eccentric, don’t they?  I find their personalities all over the place, with the one tough guy who handles it all with force and the burned out Lt. who is trying to keep as many people alive as he can but still complete the missions.

What did you think about Doc’s diagnosis of Berlin as having too many fear biles?

Anna: I was thinking that it might all be made up in his head. I hope we find out what really happened by the end if that’s the case.

Well, I’m sure the amount of pot they smoke on a daily basis helps contribute to those eccentricities. I do like how O’Brien gives them all distinct personalities, though, so that even though there are a lot of characters to remember, it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Doc is an especially interesting character because his diagnoses all seem to be from the 1800s, with all the talk about fear biles. Though when you take the “biles” out of the equation, what he has to say is pretty interesting.

What do you think of Paul’s relationship with the refugee girl? She’s definitely an interesting character, who seems both strong and flighty.

Serena: I agree about Doc and his remedies. They do seem to be pre-modern medicine. Perhaps he’s not really a medic at all, but the only one they have close enough to being one.

As for the refugee girl — I don’t remember from a previous reading — she could also be a fantasy of Berlin’s, especially if he saw her in town when he was on leave. Perhaps he paid for her services or she was just a girl who was nice to him at one point, and he’s got a rescue fantasy going on about her now. Regardless, she seems strong but still looking for someone to save her — which could be related to his perception of her.

I found the part in the tunnel system interesting, with the guy sentences to 10 years in the tunnels as a punishment. What are your thoughts on that guy?

I do like how O’Brien blends the surreal and real in these alternating chapters. It keeps the reader guessing.

Anna: Well, since this is my first time reading this novel, I’m just going with the flow. I know the story isn’t what it seems, and the quote from the very beginning of the book — “Soldiers are dreamers” — seems to be a big clue. I don’t want to spoil for myself the twist I sense coming, so I just file these little tidbits away while I wait for all the pieces to come together.

The section in the tunnel was probably the most surreal so far, especially the descriptions of them all falling through the hole in the road. I don’t know what to make of the prisoner in the tunnel, especially since it didn’t seem too hard for Paul Berlin’s group to get out of the tunnel system in the end. Maybe his story is symbolic of those dreams where you look for a way out but can’t find one.

And the whole thing about Cacciato is odd and doesn’t add up. He’s not just AWOL, but leading them somewhere, even warning them about the hole under the road before they fall through. He could have got away so many times, yet he’s always only one step ahead of them, almost like he’s taunting them. So it’s obvious there’s more to this story.

Serena: I agree there is a lot going on in this book, and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out — again!

What are your thoughts up through Ch. 24? Please chime in with your thoughts and questions. We’d love to hear from you.

For next week’s discussion, we’ll be reading the second half of the book. We hope you’ll join us.

December Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

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

For December, we’ll be reading Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

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

 

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

While we know that the final chapters fall on the say after Christmas for most of us, you can feel free to add to the discussion long after the holiday.

We hope you’ll be joining us next month for our final read-a-long.

Final Weeks: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read from Ch.29-end of the book.

Sorry for the delay.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

Wow, for the last two sections, I’m again blown away by the modesty of these men and their accomplishments in the final years of WWII.  As the Nazis are running away with their tails between their legs, grabbing what they can, and destroying what they cannot take with them, the Monuments Men are pushing forward with their units to secure mines, castles, and holes in the earth to save precious art stolen not only from France but from personal collections.  The authors do an excellent job of giving not only the troop movements and the movements of the Nazis but also the more personal accounts of the Monuments Men, who are still struggling for supplies and support.

Even after finding the works of art, the men are pressured by deadlines beyond their control, as political leaders determine how to divide up the territories captured by the allied forces and the Soviets.  Rather than a week to take care of the art, George Stout finds that he has less than a few days.  Later the deadline is extended as the political powers squabbled about whether Austria’s territory was under the same deadline as Germany — a sense of confusion that Stout took full advantage of.

I am fascinated by these modest men and their accomplishments, and how they continued to praise one another.  Even when the war is over, there were still controversies…as people came out of the woodwork claiming to play roles in saving art or finding it.  Even the governments were involved in these controversies, which clearly has a lot to do with the legacy they wanted for their own people in the wake of the Nazi’s big loss.  Returning the work took six years after the end of the war, and there are still some pieces that are missing.

The existence of the death camps came to light as these men searched for art and the allied forces battled back against the Nazis.  It was interesting to see which of the Monuments Men decided to visit the camps and which did not, and what their respective reactions were and reasons were for seeing or not seeing the camps.  Beyond the destruction and looting of art, these men realized that the Nazi regime was even more destructive than they had imagined.

Some of the fun facts for me were that Lincoln Kirstein had written and published a book of poems, which unfortunately, my library system does not have and cannot be loaned through any of the other Maryland library branches, and George Stout had been a director of the Worcester Art Museum after WWII (1947), which is near my childhood home.

What were the most interesting parts for you?

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 December, for a read-a-long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien for the Vietnam War.

Monuments Men Read-a-Long Update

We’ll be postponing the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long for week three’s discussion of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter and discuss both section 3 and 4 on Oct. 31.  Sorry for the delay.

If you are playing catch-up, here’s discussion 1 and discussion 2.

Discussions 3 and 4 will be held next Friday, Oct. 31, for Ch. 29-the end of the book.

See you next week!

Week 2: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the 2nd week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read through Chap. 28.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

I’m curious to hear what other readers think about the Monuments men and if anyone has a favorite.  I really like Stout because he seems to make things happen, even if he has to think outside the box a lot, and I really like Rose Valland.  She’s enigmatic as well as unassuming, which made her a great spy for the French Resistance while France was occupied by Germany.  It got me thinking about whether someone else like her could have made it through the entire war without being caught and that maybe the fact that France is the hub of art and artists made it easier for her to survive the war right under the noses of the Nazis.  She recorded as much as she could about the art they took and where they took it, as well as the conversations she heard them have.  I cannot imagine stealing documents, copying them at home, and returning them to the Nazis with them none the wiser.

This section also had some photos, which made some of the pieces and people become more real for me, like the tapestry they talked about.  I had an idea what a tapestry from that period might look like, but the photo showed me it was much longer than I had imagined.  Does anyone else find that the pictures helped them visual the pieces of art and people?

One of my other favorite anecdotes in this section was the entanglement of The Raft of the Medusa being caught in the low-hanging wires of the streetcars in Versailles.  I could picture that vividly and how shocking that might have been to see, especially afterward when they had a truck escort and men with poles moving the wires out of the way as they continued on their journey.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section two of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

Week 1: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we read from the beginning through Chapter 14.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

  • Friday, Oct. 10: Chapters 1-14
  • Friday, Oct. 17: Chapters 15-28
  • Friday, Oct. 24: Chapters 29-42
  • Friday, October 31: Chapters 43-end

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

What I found so interesting is how disorganized this mission was, even though art historians and other experts in the military thought it was a good idea to preserve the great art of the world in spite of the destructive nature of war.  Even though there were no supplies given to this group, they were able to improvise enough to get themselves to the locations they needed to get to and to mark special sites in a way that kept people from destroying them — such as using signs that the place was full of mines and to keep out, rather than signs stating they were protected works of art and history … signs that likely would have been ignored by soldiers.  They had not set chain of command and no procedures to follow, it was interesting to see how they remained organized and able to accomplish some of their goals in spite of that — possibly because they were in the military already and were disciplined.

Included in the beginning about the mission was another example of the Nazi’s meticulous nature, having sent ahead soldiers and others from Germany to these foreign countries to make lists of art and historically significant buildings and more ahead of the German movement to conquer the rest of Europe.  The fact that the Nazi party and Hitler changed laws to make their actions legal doesn’t surprise me, but it is different than what most dictators would have done — they simply would have reached out and taken what they wanted without bothering to change the laws.  Hitler often made it a condition of a nation’s surrender to hand over art works, which was also unique.  It was interesting to note that Hitler even thought himself entitled to art work that was not Aryan or made by those of superior birth.  But there seem to be these contradictions all the time with Hitler.

Was anyone else appalled that Hitler and his soldiers were using the guise of the Red Cross to go into churches and other places to steal art?!  I know that this is war and he had an agenda, but it was even more appalling to me that he would use an organization meant to help the injured and in need to carry out his thefts of art.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 15-28.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 17.

October Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

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

In October, we’ll be reading The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.

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

  • Friday, Oct. 10: Chapters 1-14
  • Friday, Oct. 17: Chapters 15-28
  • Friday, Oct. 24: Chapters 29-42
  • Friday, October 31: Chapters 43-end

We hope you’ll be joining us next month for our WWII read-a-long.

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.

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.

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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