November 8, 2013

When Memory Fails

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

Release Date: November 12, 2013
Publisher: Hatchette | Little Brown
Pages: 272 pages
Source & Format: Goodreads First Reads Giveaway; ARC
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
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.

In a narrative that takes us from London to America and back again, Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, set against the haunting backdrop of a war that destroyed an entire generation.

Thoughts on Stella Bain
Stella Bain had been on my radar ever since I spotted the cover on Amazon a few months ago. As a huge fan of historical fiction, I was immediately drawn to this lovely cover. It had the "look" that I love, and I was excited to read something by this new-to-me author. I know Shreve has written more than 15 books, but this was actually my first by her!

I requested this book the second I saw it had been added to NetGalley, and then I had a double freak out when I saw it listed on Goodreads as a First Reads Giveaway. I decided to enter there, too, just in case I didn't get approved. So, you can imagine my shock and surprise when I got a NetGalley approval email... and then a Goodreads winner email a few days later!

Stella Bain is the story of an American woman who is serving the war effort in France as a nurse's aide. She awakens one day with injured feet and no memory of her name, her past, where she is or what she's doing. When her memory doesn't return, she heads to London during her leave to try and piece together her identity. She's discovered, lost and confused, by a woman who invites Stella into her home. Stella ends up staying to work with the husband, a surgeon, on therapy to help her recover her memory.

For me, Stella Bain started off really strongly. I was a little thrown by the writing style at first, but I was able to find my groove with the book soon enough. The mystery surrounding Stella was really compelling, and I liked the focus on shell shock and therapy techniques to try and talk through the trauma she'd faced. Most of what I've read about shell shock has focused on a soldier's point of view, so I loved that this was highlighting a woman's experience with this debilitating reaction to the horror of war.

However, the book takes a turn about a third of the way through. I don't want to be specific about the shift, but it does takes Stella from London back to America. She learns she has unfinished business back home, so she decides to return to deal with those unresolved issues from her former life. And from that point off, I think the book really lost my interest.

Shreve loses focus on the shell shock element and begins to introduce additional storylines. For such a short book, it seemed as though there was too much being tackled. There wasn't enough depth to any of the major plot points, so it left me disappointed. I thought the summary really sold the book as one about the war and Stella's role in it and reaction to it, but the actual story focuses more heavily on her family and relationship issues.

Because of that, the story didn't flow very well. There are numerous shifts in location and event that felt like abrupt shifts rather smooth transitions. It would have been find if there had been real emotional depth to the family element, but for some reason I never really believed in Stella's motivations and decisions. I think that was due, in part, to the writing style.

The writing style issue that bothered me from the very beginning, and then more so as the book continued, is the fact that this book is written in present tense. I don't know if I've ever noticed something like that as strongly as I did in this book. I think what made it stand out so much is the fact that present tense is a really unusual choice for historical fiction. There isn't anything wrong with present tense, but I found myself really distanced from the story by this element of the writing.

Stella Bain was a good read, but it wasn't great. I thought the story was promising, but it didn't really deliver. It got caught in that reading no man's land where I was left feeling ambivalent about it overall. Unfortunately, Stella Bain started strong but was ultimately an uneven read for me.

So Quotable
"All of life, it seems, resembles static from a radio, full of people and words and smells, if only she could sort out the frequencies. Sometimes the confusion taxes her intellect, as if it were a problem she had to solve. At other times, it is a soft cocoon that comforts her."
*I received a copy of this book from Little Brown in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

4 comments:

  1. I looked at this cover and thought SO HANNAH. Obviously you agreed!

    Bummed to hear this book tried to take on too much with too little space.

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    Replies
    1. RIGHT? Totally a Hannah cover. And such a bummer that the inside wasn't working :(

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  2. This sounds so much like a book you'd enjoy, as Lisa said. I'm sad to hear it didn't quite live up to your expectations, even though the first part sounded like something you really liked.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I did really enjoy the opening! I wish it had stayed with that storyline and been more focused instead of trying to take on so much. That's when it all fell apart :/

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