(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Joel Gross’s SARAH is a fictionalized account of the life of Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous actress in theatrical history and a woman whose name has come to symbolize her profession. Beginning with Sarah’s early years as the neglected and unwanted daughter of Julie Bernhardt, a vain, self-absorbed Parisian courtesan whose lovers include the powerful Duke of Morny, the Emperor’s half brother, the novel charts Sarah’s emotional development as she searches desperately for the love she has never received from her mother. Recognizing the inherent passion and drama in Sarah’s nature, the Duke uses his influence to gain a place for her as a student at the Conservatoire and later as a member of the Comedie Francaise, although the first recognition of her great talent occurs later, among the students and artists of the Left Bank.

As her fame and skill as an actress grow, however, she is plagued by a series of tragedies and disastrous love affairs. Indeed, the novel’s action is centered primarily on Sarah’s life offstage, a life which despite its extraordinary drama remains surprisingly uninvolving in Gross’s retelling. While dwelling extensively on Sarah’s childhood--she does not make her theatrical debut until nearly halfway through the book--Gross seems far less interested in Bernhardt’s adult life, often skipping several years from one chapter to the next, then offering a brief sketch of what has taken place in the interim. The result is that one knows the young Sarah far better than the woman she becomes. Although the book’s narrative passages are well written, the dialogue is frequently lifeless and trite, and a potentially interesting technique of inserting occasional references to the events of world history taking place at that time seems merely forced.

SARAH is a sketchy, uneven book that dwells in detail on some episodes of the great actress’ life. Those with a genuine interest in Bernhardt’s life and career, however, would be better advised to consult a biography.