It is March 1916 when the woman wakes up on a cot, noting the odor of gas gangrene and hearing men moaning and the sounds of instruments being dropped into a metal pan. Her feet hurt, and a nurse's aide uniform hangs nearby. She is obviously in a field hospital during wartime but can't imagine why she is here. However, that concern pales when she realizes that she doesn't even know her own name. Letters swim up through her consciousness, until she decides that her name must be Stella. It seems right.
Stella now turns her attention to her past. Although it is an utter blank, she has the impression that her life is far from happy. At last, a nun enters the tent, asking her name and informing her that she is in France and that her feet were injured during a shelling. The sister tells Stella that she has an American accent, even though she was wearing a British voluntary aid detachment nursing assistant uniform when a man with a cart delivered her during the night.
"As always, master storyteller Anita Shreve spins a spell-binding web of a tale, guaranteed to snare her readers into turning pages until three in the morning ('…but enough about last night,' I say groggily)."
After a month of recovery, Stella begins working as a nurse's aide and, later, as an ambulance driver. She remembers the skills involved, even though she has no recollection of where or how she learned them. Her past continues to be a mystery, which would bother her more if she wasn't so preoccupied with the care of horrendously injured soldiers, most of whom die. One day, in her rare free time, she begins to draw her surroundings. When her roommate sees the sketch, she asks for a portrait. Stella soon has a thriving portrait business as a sideline. Of course, she has no idea how she acquired her abilities as an artist and doesn't know yet how important her talent will eventually prove to be in her life.
One day, Stella overhears a patient say the word "Admiralty," which snags in her mind. She can't forget that word, and it takes on monumental importance in her imagination, until she believes she must actually make her way to the Admiralty, a building in London that is the British Navy's headquarters. Surely, the Admiralty must have played a major role in her past. Finally, she is granted leave and undertakes an arduous journey, a trip that leaves her exhausted and ill by the time she reaches London. She walks and walks, in a daze, believing that she is heading for the Admiralty. At last, she realizes that she is lost and leans against a fence to rest, coughing harshly. A woman named Lily Bridge approaches her and invites her home to rest. Her physician husband urges Stella to stay until she recovers from pneumonia. He is intrigued by her lack of memory and her yearning to find keys to her past at the Admiralty.
As always, master storyteller Anita Shreve spins a spell-binding web of a tale, guaranteed to snare her readers into turning pages until three in the morning ("…but enough about last night," I say groggily). The time period and environment are fascinating, and Stella's mysterious past is an irresistible puzzle, compelling us to read on and on. Although Stella herself seems remote, making her emotions feel a bit inaccessible, the intriguing plot and satisfying conclusion more than compensate, making STELLA BAIN quite the page-turner.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on November 15, 2013