Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 12 November 2013.

17333237Anita Shreve’s Stella Bain is a curious book, to me at least. It centers on a few years in the life of Etna Bliss, also known as Stella Bain, with flashbacks as far as 1896 and an epilogue set in 1930. There’s so much pathos and tragedy in the poor woman’s life, but Shreve’s telling of the tale skims the surface. I wanted to connect with Etna. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here.

We meet Etna in a field hospital in the Marne, in 1916. She has shrapnel wounds in her feet and no memory of who she is. The name Stella Bain seems right, so she adopts it. Because she has nursing skills and is able to drive an ambulance, Etna is pressed into service. Though months pass, Etna recalls very little of her previous life. When she overhears soldiers talking about the Admiralty in London, there’s a flicker of memory, something important Etna has to do. Etna wrangles leave and sneaks back to England. She arrives at the Admiralty, but since she has no idea who she’s looking for or what she’s trying to do, she can’t get admittance. Eventually, Etna collapses near the home of Lily and Dr. August Bridge. Dr. Bridge works with Etna to get her memory return. They’re rewarded with a few things, though the big breakthrough doesn’t happen until Etna runs into an old acquaintance on one of the trips Dr. Bridge arranges for her at the Admiralty. When she meets Samuel Asher, everything comes back.

At this point, we’re about a third of the way through this brief book. Over the next few pages, Shreve gives us Etna’s story in snatches. We learn of her unhappy marriage to a tyrant. We learn of the disgrace that sent her to France. We learn of the friendship that blossoms between Etna and Samuel’s younger brother, Philip. We also learn about the two children Etna left behind. As soon as she remembers, Shreve tells us of Etna’s return to America through a series of letters. From here on, most of the book is told through letters and episodes in court as Etna tries to get custody of her children.

All this story is told in less than 300 pages. Most of the books I read have enough description and exposition for me to escape into the setting and the narrative. I don’t have to work to see what’s happening or visualize the characters. I’m sad to report that that never happened to me with Stella Bain. The story was just words on the page for the most part. Even though Etna’s story inspired a lot of sympathy in me, the way it was told struck me as curiously bloodless.


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