Saturday, April 4, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Dream Lover. A novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The Dream Lover. A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg is a historical novel written as a first person account of a difficult search for love in a life filled with literary and political success.

I knew next to nothing about George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) but I tend to seek out historical novels about literary figures and/or their significant others. I’m also interested in this late eighteenth century time period. Curious to learn more about this woman, who was recognized as an intellectual force to be reckoned with by her contemporaries (Balzac! Flaubert, Turgenev, Chopin), I approached this novel eagerly.

It’s a slow starter, but does pick up once you get used to the structure. The slow start may be because the narrator, a fictionalized George Sand, begins the story three times. There is a prologue set in 1873, where we catch a glimpse of the writer in her element but hinting at her disquiet. Then she jumps back in time to 1831, starting her tale when she runs off to Paris, leaving her stifling, loveless marriage (and necessarily temporarily leaving her children behind) to seek her literary life.

The journey sends her into a reverie about her past, which includes her family history. A lengthy “tell” of her parents’ back story follows. This leads up to the narration of the events of her own birth, start number three in 1804, setting the stage for the structure of the book. Chapters alternate between young Aurore (George narrates the difficulties she experienced growing up) and grown Aurore/George (George narrates her ongoing difficulties with balancing her need for love and her need to write.)

The book does succeed in providing the framework for George Sand’s life. I ended up with an appreciation for the conflicts she faced. I was also rather astounded by the life she managed to lead in the Paris of her day. She was a trailblazer and must have been brilliant. There were some beautiful passages and interesting vignettes. However, the narrative was choppy, particularly until you get used to it, and much of it read as narration. She was always telling the story; it rarely ever seemed to come alive.

Moreover, Sand never became, for me, a sympathetic character. That, in itself, is not a problem. A protagonist does not have to be likeable. But I wanted to admire the writer, and I had a hard time doing that, possibly because she, herself, was either informing the reader of her own achievements or complaining about her problems. Or, unfortunately, she was trying to justify her errors or affix the blame for her troubles on others.

Finally, I generally come away from historical novels about literary figures eager to read their works (or read more of their works if I was already a fan.) This novel had the opposite effect. It gave me the impression that Sand was a writing machine, prodigiously dashing off page after page of thinly disguised autobiographical work, which her eager publisher then snatched from her hand. (Once, her daughter burned three pages she had written and George had to rewrite them. She was surprised to find them better than the originals. So. . .was this the only time George Sand ever edited/rewrote anything?)

I’m glad for the introduction to the author because there is a lot of information in here that I’m pleased to have learned. However, those better acquainted with Sand’s biography and her bibliography may be better able to evaluate the merits of the novel because their feeling about the protagonist will already have been formed. I’m afraid George Sand’s “voice” left me unimpressed.

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