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Divine Sarah: A Novel

Divine Sarah: A Novel

by Adam Braver

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Set over the course of one week in 1906, Divine Sarah reimagines the life of the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. Facing protests from the newly formed League of Decency, the controversial actress is forced to move her latest production from Los Angeles to the new development of Venice Beach. Though this battle is only the most recent skirmish in a tumultuous


Set over the course of one week in 1906, Divine Sarah reimagines the life of the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. Facing protests from the newly formed League of Decency, the controversial actress is forced to move her latest production from Los Angeles to the new development of Venice Beach. Though this battle is only the most recent skirmish in a tumultuous life, the sixty-two-year-old Sarah is exhausted and beginning to lose the will to fight.

Plagued by maladies of the flesh and the spirit, she begins to search her soul, revealing the truths of her life, including the self-doubt and insecurity hidden beneath an extravagant and confrontational lifestyle. Yet Sarah is not alone in her battle. Vince Baker, an ambitious news reporter, faces his own demons even as he tries to uncover the truth about the greatest actress of the Victorian Age.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
Readers interested in the wars between life and art, art and commerce, inspiration and age, should be captivated by Adam Braver's novel. The fateful moment when enthusiasm (if only momentarily) deserts us is the focus of this author's concern. And, of course, that fateful moment haunts us all.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
"Loosely based on real circumstance," Braver's poignant and inventive second novel (after Mr. Lincoln's Wars) follows a week in the life of internationally renowned stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. As the story opens, she is 61 and on what should be a glorious Farewell Tour of America, but her career is losing steam. There's word that her California stage performances have suddenly been relocated to Venice from Los Angeles, and to make matters worse, a conservative religious group has boycotted Bernhardt, dubbing her show "immoral and unfit for performing downtown." Never one to succumb to pressure, and always primed for scandal, the resilient Bernhardt goes fishing. Before a ravenous audience of 50 reporters, she catches a sea bass, cuts it open with her hotel key and mashes her face into the bloody viscera-all "with a tragicomic smile." Bernhardt's antics are closely monitored by publicity guru Abbot Kinney and loving gay manager Max "Molly" Klein, who keeps her focused, protected and working harder than ever. Bernhardt's sudden mood swings are imagined with sympathetic verve and a light comical touch, but nothing rivals her cocaine-inspired Hamlet recitation to an enraptured Thomas Edison. As the novel closes, Bernhardt is still playing Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Cam lias, rapturously enjoying multiple curtain calls with a prosthetic leg at 76. Braver has produced a gracefully inspired story about the unavoidable effects of age on fame. Agent, Nat Sobel. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sarah Bernhardt's declining years, as highly fictionalized as Braver's debut, Mr. Lincoln's Wars (2003). At Manhattan's Booth Theater in 1880, Bernhardt makes her American debut as Marguerite Gautier in Camille and draws 29 curtain calls from the ecstatic audience, until Bernhardt calls for the house lights to go up. The audience had been stunned by the young artist's mastery of Marguerite's death of tuberculosis (the 19th-century's great romantic illness), and, outside the theater, some 5,000 people await her exit. Leap ahead to Los Angeles 1906, and Bernhardt's struggle to find again the power and insidiousness of Marguerite's consumption. What's more, her gay agent and beloved friend Max Klein warns: the Catholic Legion of Decency, which puts actresses and whores on equal footing, has shut down LA and will not allow the infamous actress to perform there. So the show's been moved to nearby Venice (the town that's recently been remodeled with Venetian waterways and gondolas). Bernhardt's private train car hasn't arrived yet. During her week alone in Venice, she's pursued by the press and by ace reporter Vince Baker, who is fairly astounded (along with 50 other reporters) to see her catch a ten-pound sea bass from a Venice pier, split it open with her hotel key, and plunge her face into the entrails, perhaps to awaken her fading spirit. She no longer has the energy to fight the press as in years past. (Her famous wooden leg won't show up for another nine years.) Now 61 on her farewell American tour, Sarah's been an opium addict since 1880-hop sometimes enhances her performances. Onstage, her presence overshadows her art. Standout scene: Sarah alone with Edison, on cocaine and recordingHamlet's soliloquy in English and French (available from EMI). At 76, Sarah still plays Marguerite. A journey into the heart of acting that's ever entertaining but at times transcendentally overblown. Agent: Nat Sobel/Sobel Literary Agency

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Read an Excerpt

Divine Sarah

By Braver, Adam

William Morrow & Company

ISBN: 0060544074

Chapter One

May 13, 1906

She barely noticed the blind man's cane lying by the side of the road. In fact if she were forced to describe it, Sarah Bernhardt might have said that she assumed it was white with those little red soldier stripes near the top, although she couldn't be certain. She would recall that it was unusually long, a detail she'd remember because it would seem almost impossible to lose something of that size. The crook at the top formed a handle. Other than that, the only other notable aspect was that there were two spent cigarettes beside the cane. One that had been stamped and crushed, creased by the impatient imprint of a boot's sole. The other lay smoldering. Smoked down to the end, but with a corner still bright in ember red, and a disfi gured trail of smoke streaming out. It was hard to imagine that a blind man would just lose his cane. He should be stumbling around, his arms extended, fi ngers reaching for direction in Oedipus's fear.

She looked one way up Rose Street, then back down the other.


She envied the thought of the mysterious blind man liberated from his cane, suddenly free to stumble and fall, with no hardwood guide clanking against metal streetlamps to keep him on track, as though he were actually seeing. She became jealous imagining his discovery of accidentally stumbling along the rough face of a concrete wall, his virgin hands feeling the intense heat and sharpened cracks. Or the feeling of his heart skipping a beat as he stepped off the ledge of the sidewalk, momentarily uncertain at the sensation of falling, only to discover the pleasure of solid ground. Everything would be new and free from constraint. He probably threw the cane away, declaring freedom for the fi rst time in his monitored and scripted life.

What she had really wanted to do was pick up the cane and smash it through the nearest window in intense anger, rewarded by the sound of shattered glass. Instead, Sarah left the cane by the side of the road as a sign of hope, praying that the blind man didn't fi nd that freedom was too deadly.

She tried to find a street sign. Sarah Bernhardt was sixty-one years old and again found herself walking down unfamiliar streets. She didn't want to get lost. Lord knows she was a compass with no needle. Practically blind herself outside of a theater or hotel or restaurant. She sometimes wished they would stencil in blocking patterns along every street she trudged, then she could just travel back and forth between white V'd line to white V'd line. Sarah looked over her shoulder at the King George Hotel, raising her stare until it settled on the fifth floor, just beyond halfway, to the window in the center. She wanted to make sure she had left a light on as a beacon. A North Star to guide her back. She was so furious when she had left, and she couldn't recall exactly what she had or hadn't done, other than try to kick the newspaper across the room, and when it wrapped stuck around her toe, she ripped it off and heaved it violently toward the mirror, where it sailed down in confused grace into little paper boats and tunnels. When she slammed the door, she heard the papers rustling in a discomforting little whisper. She was pretty sure she had turned on the light out of habit. She hadn't cared. All she had wanted was to get away from the room, past the doting concierge, and out into the faceless night.

She was accustomed to playing Los Angeles -- where she always played -- and she didn't need any beacons or stage marks to find her way along Broadway, passing theaters like the Merced, where she remembered seeing the booking on the itinerary. Today had actually started last night in Tucson, Arizona, at the tail end of a restorative two-day retreat. Max had reached her by phone, speaking with an almost conspiratorial lack of words, saying he was glad that he had found her, and that he hated having to be fi ve hundred miles away right now. "There has been a slight change of plans," he had said.

She asked him what.

"Venice." His voice was quieter than usual, void of the routine banter.


He had been kind enough not to laugh or condemn her for the obviousness of her question. That should have been the first sign. "We're taking La Dame aux Camélias up the road to Ocean Beach. Venice of America," he had said. "Things have gotten suddenly complicated in Los Angeles."

"Like what?"

"It is too much to explain by telephone, but it's all for the better, believe me. I'll be there a day and a half behind you."

"A day and a half by myself?"

"You won't even be there until tomorrow night. That's really only a day alone. I'm getting out of Santa Fe as fast as I can. But it's all set. Terms are negotiated."

"But, Molly, I need you here to run through lines."

"Marguerite Gautier's? You have said those a thousand times or more."

"It is the last part that is troubling me. The final scene. I can't manage to let the disease take her. I am too much in control of the sickness. I am giving it its life."

"You are overthinking it."

"It is a matter of control. Recently, Marguerite's consumption has lost the power and insidiousness. I just can't find it right now. The sickness just doesn't subsume me. It feels so tangible."

"I will be there soon."

"Or perhaps I am bored with it."

"We will run through that fi nal scene as much as you need in your room."

"In my railcar?"

"You have a suite booked at the King George Hotel."

"An English place? Where is the car?"


Excerpted from Divine Sarah by Braver, Adam Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Braver is the author of Divine Sarah and Mr. Lincoln's Wars. His work has appeared in Daedalus, Cimarron Review, Post Road, and Pittsburgh Quarterly. He teaches creative writing at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.

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