French Illusions

Title: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
Publisher: Random House
368 pp
Genre: historical fiction, biographical novel, literary fiction, George Sand
5/4.5 stars****
Author: Elizabeth Berg is a NYTimes best selling author (25 books). Open House was an Oprah a bookclub select (2000). Durable Goods and Joy School were selected by ALA as a Best Book of the year. Talk before Sleep was shortlisted for an ABBY Award (1996). She won the 1997 NE booksellers Award for her body of work. A nonfiction work Escaping into the Open: the Art of Writing True was published in 1999. I was introduced to her writing when I lived in MN as she was born in St Paul. I would rate her novels consistently 4 stars, although I have always found them sentimental. This novel is different from her others, in that it is a biographical novel of a famous literary bohemian, George Sand. I personally think it is her best novel (5 stars for the writing/ emotion and 4 stars for the technical plotting, although her life is quite difficult to sort out). I put this book on several friends must read list two months ago when I first read it. A second reading was equally rewarding.
Story Line:
This novel reads like a memoir, in lyrical first person. It concerns the French romantic writer George Sand, (1804-1876) the pseudonym for Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin/Dudevent. Here, as an older woman, she is retracing her steps. Memories which can always be somewhat unreliable can also be vividly informative with the distance of time.
Berg has an intimate, sympathetic voice. From an unusual and unhappy childhood, to a disastrous marriage, her early years reveal her intelligence and understanding of an unforgiving society. In Paris she gives herself a fresh start pursuing her dream of writing and a new name. The success of her first novel gives her a degree of independence as her husband continues to squander her inheritance.
She embraces life, unconventional and scandalous to the times, a pioneer feminist. There is a cast of characters (and lovers) in her life that is larger than life: Alfred de Musset, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Marie Dorval, Frederic Chopin, Pauline Viardot. Many appear in her works. She wrote five memoirs, 42 novels and 12 plays which gave her some financial security to live an independent life. She was also conflicted, always seeking love while being independent. I was surprised by her vulnerability, yet in relation to her childhood, understood her choices. Her lasting love (10 years with Chopin) is a small portion of this novel, almost an afterthought for an extremely complicated relationship: friend, lover, confidante, nurse.
Sand was strong and disciplined with her writing, yet vulnerable and influenced by her passions (children, artists, lovers). Is it not telling that Victor Hugo could boast of 2000 conquests, while Sand had perhaps 20 lovers? Much criticism and antipathy has been generated of her and her works simply because she was not a “proper lady”. If it seems like a sad novel, the timelessness and resilience of her art shines through.
In The Dream Lover, there is an everyday, ordinary feeling for what was then an unconventional and controversial woman. It is a well researched and thoughtful account, true to the character of a unique literary figure. The reader will note many parallels to current affairs: wide ranging book club discussions are expected. The pace of this novel is leisurely and descriptive, almost the 19th century writing style. Yet these were also turbulent times with enormous social and political change. It was also very interesting to get the feel of her life in conjunction with what she was writing, a perspective on her work. This is beautifully written (I have 1/3 rd of the book highlighted for lyrical passages). I would have appreciated a list of sources, as well as excellent translations. (I can still remember considering one novel dreadful in English class and being completely changed by a different translation. See Kathleen a Robin Hart.) There are fabulous descriptions of the beauty and energy of Paris, gardens and estates of France, the sublime nature of the countryside as well as interesting portraits of social interactions and mores. I hope this novel brings her work more exposure. There is also an interesting PBS series on her life.

“There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” George Sand

Read On:
George Sand Story of my Life, Indiana, Gabriel (translated by Kathleen Robin Hart)
Susan Cheever American Bloomsbury
Megan Marshall Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller
Benita Eisler Chopin’s Funeral
Dan Hofstadter The Love Affair as a work of Art
Nancy Horan Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Robin Oliveira I have Always Loved You
Susanne Dunlap Liszt’s Kiss
Lucasta Miller The Bronte Myth
Nancy Milford Savage Beauty
Dea Birkett Spinsters Abroad
AS Byatt Possession
Quotes about her:
“What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.” Ivan Turgenev
“George Sand was an idea. She has been released from the flesh, and is now free. She is dead, and now she is living.” Victor Hugo
To George Sand: A recognition Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“What inexhaustible goodness, always so quiet and calm, always such an essential part of her character.” Pauline Viardot

RPL has two copies (6 holds) and an audio version. And all of Berg’s novels.

Read as an ARC from Netgalley!

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