Anita Shreve writes a novel, “Stella Baine,” that is part mystery and part romance, but is entirely entertaining. In 1916, a 40-year-old woman awakens in a hospital in northern France. She can’t remember her name or how she got there. She is wearing the uniform of a British nurse’s aide, but she has an American accent. Later, while recuperating from injuries to her feet, she recalls that her name is Stella Baine. She remembers that she drives an ambulance, so after she is well enough, she begins to drive again and pick up wounded soldiers and bring them to the hospital. Also, in her limited free time, she discovers she has a talent for art and sketches scenes at the hospital.
One day, she overhears a man say the word “Admiralty,” which triggers a memory for her; she knows she must go there.
The Admiralty is the British Royal Navy headquarters in central London. She asks for leave to go to London. Upon arriving, she becomes lost and meets a woman named Lily Bridge, who takes Stella to her house because she realizes that Stella is sick. In fact, Stella has pneumonia and ends up staying with Lily and her husband, Dr. August Bridge, for several months.
August tries to help her regain her memory and find out the cause of the recurring pain in her legs and her deafness. Stella continues to draw at the Bridge’s house, and August tries to use the pictures to trigger memories. The doctor is convinced that they need to go to the Admiralty to find out why it is so important to Stella. They go several times and wait to see if someone can help her discover her past.
On her last trip to the Admiralty, her memory starts to come back when she sees her former lover, Samuel Asher. She recalls that her real name is Etna Bliss and that she has children. When she met Samuel, in England years before the war, he had been engaged to someone else and so was she. She told him that she had broken off her engagement, but his parents would not allow him to marry her. Many years later, she married a professor, Dr. Van Tassel, but never really loved him. She married him because she felt sorry for him. They had two children, Clara and Nicky, with whom she found solace.
Her husband convinced their young daughter to falsely accuse a competing colleague at Thrupp College of taking advantage of his daughter. The younger colleague happens to be Samuel’s younger brother, Phillip Asher, who then lived in the United States. Etna is upset that her husband would use such a devious tactic to win the appointment. Later, her husband rapes her and she flees their home knowing that she must find Phillip and apologize to him. After his ruination, Phillip becomes an ambulance driver with the British Red Cross in France.
Etna finds Phillip and they become fast friends, trying to find beauty in the midst of war. She becomes a nurse’s aide, but also drives an ambulance after some of the drivers are killed. Phillip tells her that when she decides to leave France, she must go the Admiralty and get help from Samuel, who has been stationed there. Phillip is injured during a shelling and when Etna sees that he has no face, she runs screaming into a field. That is when she, too, is injured.
At the Admiralty, Samuel handles the paperwork so she can get back to America, where she intends to divorce her husband and re-establish a relationship with her children. The story is one of contrast, showing a woman risking her life daily in France and being admired by the hospital staff having to go to court to prove her worth as a mother to regain contact with her children.
Anita Shreve has written 17 novels, including “The Pilot’s Wife,” which was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.