Alas, Divine Sarah, Adam Braver’s second novel, is a disappointment. After reading Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, which came out a year ago, I was prepared to become immersed in an inventive novel based “loosely” on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. Braver’s second novel is inventive, but perhaps too much so. Somehow, one of its primary raisons d’etre seems to be to appear experimental, modern. Isn’t a novel’s first obligation to tell a good story?
The novel centers on the famous French-born actress, Sarah Bernhardt (she was sometimes called “the eighth wonder of the world”). The story takes place in 1906 in southern California. At sixty-one, Bernhardt is still performing but badly missing her youth. She has begun to mistrust her talent: “She was beginning to hate the younger Sarah, the pretty younger sister that everybody compared her to. But in truth it was guilt. The terrible sense of having lost her. Of not having given that younger Sarah anybody to look up to.” She is a prima donna, constantly needing her ego stroked.
Most of this is done by her charming gay manager, Max “Molly” Klein. Their relationship is the best thing in the book. They are true friends; they apparently love each other in a complex (i.e., human) way.
However, there are a few weaknesses in the work. First, the novel is weak on plot. The action takes place in one week; we follow Bernhardt’s considerable mood swings and imagined thoughts during her performances and down times. But there is no real high point; nothing much changes. As the book ends in a flash forward, she is still performing, in her seventies.
Secondly, there is a sub-plot involving a young reporter, Vince Baker, who wants to set the world on fire but never feels he is given the right beat. Although Braver tries to connect these two central characters, it never quite happens. Both Bernhardt’s and Klein’s characters are complex and believable, but that of Baker seems cardboard. We don’t come to care about him – or what happens in his future. He also treats women badly – perhaps he wasn’t alone at that time in the kinds of bars he hung out in. On the other hand, Bernhardt is well-drawn: a complex, self-centered woman with immense talent who, like many artists, suffers some insecurity. She needs her audiences as they need her.
Finally, what also impaired my total enjoyment of Braver’s novel is his use of the language. Like E. Annie Proulx, his every other sentence is a fragment. I admit – I teach writing to college students, so I care about this. All those fragments seem far too conversational and unedited, as if he is showing his readers he can break the rules. But to what end or purpose?
Yet, overall, I am glad I read this book. I now know more about Sarah Bernhardt and am drawn to read her autobiography. Life in California in the early twentieth century is fascinating to read about, especially the opium dens in Chinatown in San Francisco, competitive newspaper reporting, and the era’s fashions and bar etiquette. Bernhardt’s one meeting with Thomas Edison is quite magical for both of them.
My recommendation? Read Mr. Lincoln’s Wars. It is a much better, indeed, a delightful read.