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Anita Shreve Takes Us Back To WWI With 'Stella Bain'

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"Stella Bain." (Courtesy, Little Brown)
"Stella Bain." (Courtesy, Little Brown)

How powerful is your name? If you do not know your name, how much can you truly understand about yourself?

In “Stella Bain,” Anita Shreve plumbs the depths of these and other questions against the harrowing backdrop of World War I. Shreve, a Dedham native, infuses “Stella Bain” with a warmth and intelligence that has been a hallmark of her 17 previous novels.

Stella Bain is a name that floats into the consciousness of a woman who has woken with shrapnel wounds in a French field hospital in 1916. This name along with two other elements of her personality—she knows how to drive an ambulance and has some experience as a nurse—form a wobbly foundation for her current life. Anything beyond is empty space.

Though Stella cannot discern her past, she “senses it might be an unhappy place.” Even so, she is compelled to uncover it. An overheard conversation about the Admiralty in London pings something in her gauzy memory. She must go there. Against formidable odds, she makes her way through France and across the English Channel to London, where she nearly collapses of exhaustion and hunger. She might have become just another wanderer in uniform adrift on the streets, but fortunately, her strength gives out near the stately home of Dr. August Bridge and his wife Lily. Stella becomes their houseguest and, as she regains her health, a deep friendship develops among the three.

Although August is not a psychologist, but a medical doctor, he wonders if the new talk therapy being pioneered by Sigmund Freud might help Stella conquer what he believes is shell shock. August and Stella begin a series of directed conversations in the Bridges’ solarium, a rooftop haven with a panoramic view of London. Here, Stella describes her dreams and some disconnected memories, not only in words but also drawings.

The latter helps reveal another discovery: Stella is a talented artist. Her drawings of doctors and nurses at work in battlefield medical tents are meticulously rendered, while those of a house surrounded by forbidding trees presents an overpowering aura of ominous portent.

With the story of this one woman, Shreve gives shape to the larger world of The Great War, presenting an era resonant with heartbreak and with countless acts of valor amid inconceivable suffering.

Author Anita Shreve. (Courtesy, Little, Brown(
Author Anita Shreve. (Courtesy, Little, Brown(

Almost a century later, World War I still holds a mesmeric power in popular literature and culture. The ten novels in Jacqueline Winspear’s highly successful mystery series, “Maisie Dobbs,” begin before the first world war and continue on into the 1930s, unfolding against an England reeling from the loss of nearly an entire generation of young men. “Downton Abbey” devoted an entire season to the Great War’s effects on men and the home front, while Ford Madox Ford’s set of 1920s World War I era novels, “Parade’s End,” has been recreated in elegant fashion as a recent BBC-HBO miniseries.

After many visits to the Admiralty building, Stella hears her name — her real name — called out by a man she knew years before. Memories rush in; her true identity surfaces. These revelations do not tie up loose ends, however, but only open the door to a life — in New England — that had become very, very complicated. Stella’s struggles and triumphs on this side of the Atlantic prove as compelling as her time in Europe.

“Stella Bain” is not a page-turner; instead, Shreve’s writing creates an atmosphere you long to immerse yourself in, one that is filled with interesting, distinctive characters you want to learn more about. I found myself looking forward to the end of the day, when I could again pick up the book and return to this time and these people.

Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews and op-ed columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and The Hartford Courant. Carol She is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology, “Digital Deli.”

Read an excerpt here.

This program aired on November 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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