Perhaps it comes with the territory. Why do authors who write a fictionalized version of a famous individual feel the need to write what is in essence a biography. Yes, the research is incredible. The person who they describe is extraordinary. The resulting novel falls short.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg. Who wouldn’t be drawn to a story detailing the life of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin aka George Sand. She is one of the great heroines of literature, a largcer than life presence whose writings have stood the test of time. Berg follows the life of Aurore (1804-1876) from birth to death, detailing every aspect of her life.
This novel reads like a detailed diary/memoir/autobiography told from Sand’s point of view. From Berg’s narrative it is deduced that George was a spoiled prima donna subject to fits of mania and depression or highs and lows. Perhaps she was ADHD as she flit from one relationship to another. Once she got bored with one lover she moved on to the next. Her attitude tended to be – here I am now entertain me. She was over opinionated to the point of being rude. Her writing talent and success in a male dominated world did not always endear her to others. Jealousy was a constant issue. All of the above led to the emasculation of more than one lover. The author tries to paint a picture of Sand’s adult behaviors being caused by a traumatic childhood, but even at a young age, Aurore was a handful (as witnessed by her grandmother sending her to a convent during her rebellious teens). I’m sure the servants didn’t reprimand her out of malice (perhaps it was out of spite for her implied atrocious behaviors). Her children were treated like toys to be picked up and played with when convenient. To say George was self centered and egotistical would be a gross understatement. She personified those terms. Yet she had an enormous capacity to be loving and generous, willing to make sacrifices for those she held dear. Her life was filled with drama and excitement at a time when women knew their place and stayed behind caring for hearth and home. So while there was much to criticize about George’s behaviors, there was also a lot to admire. The same rebelliousness which drove society to distraction, mesmerized the artistic community. By sporting men’s clothing in public, Sand was able to circulate more freely in 1830’s Paris, giving her access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of her social standing. She loved to scandalize and took up smoking tobacco in public, another taboo. Her numerous affairs and relationships with those in the art world were legendary, as well as her influence on the great masters of the times – Chopin, Musset, Flaubert, Liszt, Hugo, Balzac, Delacroix. This creates an amazing backdrop to The Dream Lover, a story of a life full of zest and liveliness as well as sorrow and angst, as Aurore searches for true love. One of the most well known quotes of George Sand is: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” I would surmise that this is the theme of this novel.
So how could Elizabeth Berg make George Sand’s amazing life seem almost mundane? I thought it ironic that she turned to Nancy Horan for advice. I had recently read Horan’s Under a Wide and Starry Night about the romantic relationship between Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. But Horan, like Berg, took much of the excitement out of the adventure. Is it the fact they insisted on a factual accounting of the life and times? That they felt compelled to give us every detail, no matter how minute. Better to have skipped over some of the day to day details. These aren’t diaries, they are romantic novels. Take some liberties. Focus on the dramatic events.
While Berg used a unique style, with the chapters switching back and forth between time frames, it was at times like experiencing déjà vu. I felt like I was reading random selections throughout the novel starting at pages towards the end then flipping to the beginning. An interesting concept which got confusing as past and future finally coincided.
Despite my criticisms, this was an incredible achievement – covering the life and death of George Sand. This book obviously reflected a tremendous amount of research and I loved the inclusion of the numerous quotes from Sand’s publications and correspondence. Perhaps I am a little greedy. I wanted more. I wanted more descriptions of the Parisian culture. I wanted more about the colorful characters who dominated the world of literature back then and even today. Not just name dropping, but an immersion into those fascinating days.
The hammer was swung, the bell was not rung. No oversized stuffed animal for the lady. Better luck next time.
I give this book three stars. I am grateful to Random House and Netgalley for allowing this free ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author for such a detailed accounting of this amazing woman’s life.