Incidents from the life of a Lebanese-American artist—each of them vivid, passionate, and briskly told—that still never quite cohere into a unified whole.
The problem is Alameddine’s (The Perv, 1999, etc.) narrative strategy: she tells her protagonist Sarah’s story in a succession of first chapters, variously labeled “Chapter One,” “Title Page,” and so on. The early chapters tell of Sarah’s life as a girl in Lebanon and her parents’ traumatic divorce. Her father, a physician, married a bright, attractive woman who gave birth to Sarah and her sisters but failed to produce a boy. She is effectively discarded, and Sarah’s father remarries. The family endures the agonies of war in 1970s Beirut, a time and place depicted with compelling, fluid authority, while Sarah’s stepmother chills the house with her severe, restrictive personality. Sarah makes her way to the US, attends college, and marries. When she discovers that her sister Lamia, now working as a nurse, has been causing the deaths of patients, Sarah returns to Lebanon to help the family cope with this awful development. The scene is compelling, as are the letters Lamia has written to her birth-mother, and yet, like many of the incidents here, it remains at a distance from the development of the central character. Sarah divorces, remains in the States, achieves modest success as an artist, and, while living in New York, attempts to reconnect with her embittered mother, who suddenly commits suicide—in a moving section that carries its deep pathos well. Sarah realizes in conclusion that she can best be known through her network of family and friends: good advice, perhaps, but not, at least here, the most rigorously cohering means of telling a life story.
Lovely prose and vividly evocative scenes, though Sarah resists emerging whole from them.