Remember when Karen Joy Fowler came for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? There was a secret twist in the book, and I wasn't sure whether to tell folks the revelation or not. It turned out that the author and publisher struggled with the twist as well. On one hand, it was a unique experience to have that revelation thrown at you about a third of the way through the reading. On the other hand, it was really hard to promote the book without being able to give it away.
In the end, the publisher decided on the reveal, and we didn't get that aha moment. I was sympathetic with the publisher--I couldn't figure out how to get someone interested in the book without the reveal. But those surprises can really be fun. I've always said that one of the joys of reading Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage is how the novel plays with your assumptions about what your reading, and several times you are thrown for a loop.
So that was a bit of my quandary when discussing Stella Bain. Shreve has done that structural aha before. While I really liked the ending of The Last Time They Met, I know at least one person who threw the book across the room. And that's another great thing about physical books; your e-reader might not survive impact.
As you heard from previous posts, Stella Bain is about a woman in World War I who is found on the battlefield with shrapnel wounds. She really doesn't know who she is. She has skills as a nurse and also driving the war wounded off the field. We also know that she has some desire to visit the admiralty, but we don't know why. She's plagued by symptoms of shell shock, or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. As Karen Campbell noted in the Boston Globe, this was a rare diagnosis in women, who were normally labeled with "hysteria."
Stella meets a doctor who tries to help her unlock her past with talk therapy. Though a surgeon, he's a nascent Freudian, and does eventually get his degree. And once she figures out who she is, she tries to reclaim her past in the United States.
So here's the thing. If you're a loyal Anita Shreve reader and you've got a good memory, you'll realize that the book is a secret sequel to another novel. It's a heroine who never really got to tell her own story, and being that she struggled with amnesia in this novel, she still seems to have an uphill battle. But for folks who read this other book, it's rewarding for her to get her due, and also for several wrongs to be righted.
I really took Shreve's cue from this, after seeing how she talked about the book at the event, which is why I waited until post-event to write this blog post. She acknowledges the connection to the other book, but she didn't reveal what it is. And now that I've started telling folks this hook, I've found Stella Bain easier to sell (two yesterday). But what I highly recommend is that you don't try to learn the secret except through reading the book. It's really too much fun to put two and two together.
Another interesting thing about Stella Bain is that it's been a lab experiment in that old selling point, the sequel with the caveat that you don't have to read the other book first. We actually tested the book on a customer, who wound up liking the book, and didn't catch the connection to the other story. Honestly, I wouldn't have caught it either, except for the over-the-top name of one of the other characters in the narrative led me to a search engine.
Jane too noted that the book worked on its own, and was reminded of Rebecca West. I think it was smart for Little, Brown to give the book a cover treatment that feels very British to me. I honestly wouldn't be surprised to see this as the jacket of an Anita Brookner novel. Then again, Brookner probably wouldn't have a trial scene.
If you can get to hear Shreve's talk on why this novel took a little longer, go out of your way to find her in person or at least on video. She's normally a fast writer, but Stella Bain, it turns out, had multiple major revisions to get it to work just right.
I was looking at my collection of Shreve novels, and while I actually think she might have visited at Milwaukee at least five times, I went to at least four of her appearances. Of late, I've been forgetting to get books signed, but I was better when I was younger.
Here's another little aside. It looks like her new novel is the first to get a different title in the UK. They are going with The Lives of Stella Bain, which also seems to be the German title, translated of course. Interestingly enough, if you poke around, you can find an alternate cover of Stella Bain that keeps to the paperback series cover that Little, Brown has been using. Well what do you know? It is for the upcoming paperback in April 2014. I like this look, but I'm glad that they've gone back to using a more unique cover treatment for the cloth editions.