A young woman wakes up in a military hospital in France in 1916, suffering from pneumonia, shell shock, and debilitating pain in her feet from shrapnel. Initially, she can’t even remember her name, much less the telling details of her life — such as, for instance, how she ended up in a hospital bed. Gradually, the young American recalls that she has nursing experience and once drove an ambulance. And the name Stella Bain “bubbles up into her consciousness.”
But beyond that, Stella’s previous life is a blank, and she faces the thought of remembering with an undercurrent of trepidation. “Stella has no idea where she has come from. She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open.” Nonetheless, finding the portal back to memories of her previous life becomes Stella’s consuming passion.
Stella makes her way to London, and it is there that Anita Shreve’s novel, named after the troubled title character, really gains traction. Stella is somehow convinced the answers she seeks can be found at the Admiralty, where she is sure someone will recognize her. But getting into the government building proves challenging. Overwrought and undernourished, she is taken in by a British surgeon, August Bridge, and his wife, Lily, who begin to nurse her back to physical and mental health as Stella waits to get an appointment inside the Admiralty.
August attempts to get Stella attention for her condition. But at the time, while men returning from the front were treated for shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), women suffering the same symptoms, even if brought on during medical and battlefield support service, were routinely diagnosed with hysteria and had difficulty finding specialists willing to take them on as patients.
Though Stella’s mental state is outside his expertise, August tries to help her through casual talk therapy and a kind of gentle ongoing psychoanalysis. He also tries to interpret the vivid series of drawings Stella finds herself creating — it turns out she is a talented artist, and the doctor believes these drawings must hold clues to her identity and past life.
When August is finally able to pull strings to get Stella inside the Admiralty, she is, as she intuited, recognized by someone from her past, and her intriguing back story begins to slowly unfold, taking us back and forth between the United States and Europe. And as she recaptures her rocky past and recovers her sense of self, Stella also uncovers some painful truths that help her realize there really is no going back.
From the opening pages, Shreve (“The Pilot’s Wife,” “Rescue”) writes with a spare directness and quiet urgency about aspects of life during World War I. The descriptions of Stella’s time in the field and hospital in France are especially compelling — touching, heartbreaking, sometimes so vivid you can almost feel the fear and smell the stench of death and decay. She delves insightfully into the nature of trauma, shell shock, and memory loss. But the novel is most effective in the small personal moments, as she traces one woman’s journey to recover her memory, renegotiate past relationships, forge new connections, and embrace life anew.