IN AMERICA by Susan Sontag


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Once past its odd, sluggish opening, and not yet as far as its final ’scene," a reader finds much to enjoy in Sontag’s highly researched fourth novel (The Volcano Lover, 1992, etc.). It's a fictionalization of the American experience of celebrated Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska (here named Maryna Dembowska): first, as queen of an entourage that includes her family and her lover (Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, called here Ryszard Kierul) and that joins a farming commune in California; next, as center star on a spectacularly successful extended tour that begins in Nevada ("making miners weep")) and ends in New York and London; then as working partner with American thespian Edwin Booth, another of the many men who threw themselves at her feet. Maryna’s epic story begins as a speculation hatched in the mind of a nameless woman narrator who, accidentally observing a private party in a hotel dining-room, "conjures up" the histories of its evidently foreign-born participants. The tale, thus begun, assumes several forms: a straightforward narrative of the move from embattled Poland to America as undertaken by Maryna and her second husband, Count Bogdan Dembowski, her three children, and several friends (notably, her importunate lover Ryszard); second, scenes from these and other characters’ viewpoints; third, Maryna’s letters home to her admiring physician "" Henryk; fourth, Bogdan’s diary, recording both his passive deference to Maryna’s wishes and his fleeting homosexual impulses; and finally, strangest of all, a monologue "addressed" by Edwin Booth to his new stage partner, the triumphant Maryna. The heart of the story is Sontag’s account of Maryna’s conquest of America: a wonderfully ironic, episodic chronicle of culture shock that includes a wittily described meeting with Henry James (who, it’s implied, will immortalize Maryna in The Tragic Muse). Lamentably shapeless. Yet, though Sontag may not be a novelist, really, she enlightens and entertains in what becomes, against rather long odds, a surprisingly lighthearted and likable book.

Pub Date: March 8th, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-17540-3
Page count: 387pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2000


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