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Book Review: The Dream Lover

By (April 19, 2015) No Comment

The Dream Loverthe dream lover cover

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, 2015

The headline-grabbing life of 19th-century novelist Aurore Dupin Dudevant – who wrote under the pen name of “George Sand” – forms the subject and the raw material of Elizabeth Berg’s new novel The Dream Lover, and the book ends up being as uneven and frustrating a thing as its subject’s life itself could often be. Sand achieved star-writer status upon the publication of her novel Indiana in 1831 when she was twenty-eight, and she reveled in her subsequent notoriety, wearing men’s clothing and smoking cigars in public, speaking out on the political issues of the day, and, most infamously, carrying on several attention-grabbing love affairs, including a long stretch with the composer Frederic Chopin.

At first glance, it seems like promising material for historical fiction, which makes it all the more puzzling to see it sprawl so shapelessly over the course of nearly 400 pages. Part of the problem might be that historical fiction isn’t Berg’s normal metier; certainly her signature personal insight into her characters is here, and she’s done lots of brush-clearing research into Sand’s life and times (although perhaps not – we can hope not! – to the extent of reading the dozens of novels and hundreds of book reviews extant from this author, nine-tenths of which have no good translations in English). But her Sand is by her own admission a ball of frustrating contradictions:

I was at odds with myself. On the one hand, I had written to a friend, “I will lift women up from their abject state, both in my life and in my writings.” And yet, embarrassingly, I had also written a letter to Michel begging him simply to let me do all that I could to make him happy. I told him in that gushing missive that he would find me much like a faithful dog, a study in devotion.

“You are not a fickle child any longer,” a former mentor tells her at one point, “with the luxury of being able to run here and there and everywhere, claiming each time that this is where you want to be forever. No, you must choose a place to be, and commit fully to it.” But it’s not advice that Sand can follow, and so the novel swings from emotional highs to lows right along with her – which would have made for fine biography but which makes for fitful fiction.

One of the book’s main plot-lines involves the actress Marie Dorval, with whom Sand was rumored to have had a passionate love affair. Berg’s novel believes the rumors and gives them a good deal of dramatic space, but there’s never any chemistry between the two characters. Readers get romantic chemistry aplenty in the course of the book, however – but all of it springs up between Sand and Chopin. In their scenes together, all Berg’s considerable talent for the unspoken moments that lend architecture to daily life (a talent so abundantly on display in most of her earlier novels) comes to the fore. When Sand is defiantly remembering the scorn heaped upon her when Chopin died in October of 1849, she recalls one such moment among the countless they shared:

In the years that followed, I would be reviled for having caused his death, when in fact I’d extended his life. Without me, the world would have far fewer of his mazurkas, polonaises, preludes, and waltzes. It would be without his ravishing B-flat Minor Sonata, which he completed on a stormy afternoon at Nohant, after which he called me from the kitchen, where I had been putting up plum jam, to hear it. I stood at the piano with my fingers stained blue, with minute blossoms that had fallen in the wind on my walk that morning still dotting my hair. After he lifted his hands from the keys and the room fell abruptly silent, I opened my eyes and smiled at him through tears. And the breath he had been holding came rushing from him.

There aren’t enough such moments in The Dream Lover to quite float the entire apparatus, and I doubt I’ll be the only reader to wish Berg had somehow finagled permission from her publisher (or wanted to) to write a biography/literary appreciation of this now somewhat overlooked figure from the canon. But the book has a blurb from Nancy Horan, whose historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, became a bestseller and book club favorite despite being similarly uneven, so there may be method to the genre-choice here.