Anita Shreve’s latest character-driven novel is both a historical glimpse into the side effects of war and a mystery centered on a young woman’s search for her lost identity.
Stella Bain opens as a young nurse’s aide regains consciousness in a hospital camp on a French battlefield in the winter of 1916. She’s been hit by shrapnel in her legs and can’t remember any details of her life before she came to France. She has an American accent and gives her name as Stella Bain—though not really knowing why.
Stella harbors a vague sense that the key to her identity may be found at the Admiralty, the headquarters of the British Royal Navy, so when she is granted leave, she gradually makes her way to London. There she is found, dazed and wandering, by Lily Bridge, a young mother married to a cranial surgeon who takes an interest in Stella’s case.
It is at this point that the novel takes on an element of mystery, as Stella begins to put together pieces of her past—initiated just as she imagined by a visit to the Admiralty, where a Canadian officer recognizes her as Etna Bliss. Hearing her name instantly sparks memories of Stella/Etna’s past, and by means of a series of flashbacks, Shreve transports the reader to New Hampshire at the turn of the century, where Etna’s tumultuous, transfixing story began. We discover why Etna was drawn to the battlefield even as we see her current-day struggles to heal and to move past her mistakes in a world where women’s roles—and rights—are limited. Her story is sure to appeal to readers of Shreve’s earlier novels, including The Pilot’s Wife and The Weight of Water.