I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

by Rabih Alameddine
     
 

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Named after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, red-haired Sarah Nour El-Din is "wonderful, irresistibly unique, funny, and amazing," raves Amy Tan. Determined to make of her life a work of art, she tries to tell her story, sometimes casting it as a memoir, sometimes a novel, always fascinatingly incomplete. See more details below

Overview

Named after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, red-haired Sarah Nour El-Din is "wonderful, irresistibly unique, funny, and amazing," raves Amy Tan. Determined to make of her life a work of art, she tries to tell her story, sometimes casting it as a memoir, sometimes a novel, always fascinatingly incomplete.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Chabon
[A] work that while marked by radical formal innovation, manages to be warm, sad, funny and moving.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Inventive and wholly original...a fully realized portrait of a complex and fascinating woman.
Los Angeles Times
Alameddine's new novel unfolds like a secret... creating a tale...humorous and heartbreaking and always real.
San Francisco Weekly
[W]ith each new approach,[Sarah] sheds another layer of her pretension,revealing another truth about her humanity.
Boston Globe
[M]oving and memorable.
Publishers Weekly
Talk about writer's block; Sarah Nour El-Din never manages to get past the first chapter of the memoir she aspires to pen. Alameddine's innovative novel collects several dozen of (fictional) Sarah's aborted attempts, a structural gimmick that works to create a revealing composite of a character who can't seem to finish her own story. Sarah is the Beirut-born daughter of a love match that went sour; her Lebanese father sent her American mother back to the United States when he tired of her and married a traditional Lebanese wife instead. Saniya, Sarah's stepmother, disapproves of her athletic gifts and packs her off to a strict convent school. Sarah, named after Sarah Bernhardt by her grandfather and just as mischievous and dramatic as the famous actress, grows up in wartorn 1970s Beirut, longing for American freedoms. She emigrates to New York with her first husband, Omar, and resists his attempts to force her to move back to Lebanon, losing custody of her son, Kamal, in the process. Over the next several decades, she marries and divorces again, suffers a devastating breakup with a controlling lover and becomes a well-known painter. Alameddine, a distinguished painter himself, is best known for Koolaids, a novel in which a Lebanese-American gay protagonist discovers he is HIV-positive. His Sarah is a compelling, believable character who struggles to establish an identity as she navigates between cultures, but one wishes that the novel's structure did not mirror her confusion so faithfully. Some vignettes are beautifully written and touching, but others seem rambling or irrelevant. Ultimately, the novel's clever framing device is also its weakness, as the reader yearns for the satisfactionof a linear story. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 coheringmeans of telling a life story. Lovely prose and vividly evocative scenes, though Sarah resists emerging whole from them.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393323566
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
10/28/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
324
Sales rank:
266,218
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


My grandfather named me for the great Sarah Bernhardt. He considered having met her in person the most important event of his life. He talked about her endlessly. By the age of five, I was able to repeat each of his stories verbatim. And I did.


    My grandfather was a simple man


At the age of thirteen, the age of discovery, I was moved from an all-girl Catholic school to a boys' school. My father decided I needed to have English, not French, as my primary language, so he transferred me to the best school in the city. It was all boys until I showed up. They wanted to integrate it and I was the guinea pig. What a guinea pig.

    I was not the only girl in the school, but I was the only one in my class, all five sections. The four other girls were in the upper classes. It was life-changing culture shock.

    In October of 1973, I arrived for my first day of school Nineteen seventy-three was a strange year. I cut my hair short, which drove my stepmother crazy. The Lebanese army went nuts and started bombing the PLO, a harbinger of things to come. I left those wacky Carmelite nuns and entered an American-bankrolled school where I was the only girl in the whole class. I also met Fadi, who changed my life forever.

    I had always been a little odd, which people blamed on my mother, but she was not at fault. My sisters were normal. People could not blame my father. My half-sisters turned out to be more normal than normal. Except for being gay, my little brother was probably the most normal of us all. I was the strange one.

    When I was little, we had a nanny from the Seychelles named Violet. I remember her showing us a picture of her family—her parents and all her sisters. I pointed out a white girl in the picture and asked Violet who she was. She said that was her sister. Surprised, I asked how that could be. She said, "My mother went astray." That sentence stuck with me. I had always thought my mother "went astray" when conceiving me.

    I was different, but not nearly in Fadi's league. We met my first day in class. I arrived ready for battle in jeans and sweatshirt, prepared to fight any boy who dared make fun of me. Fadi did. When I sat behind him, he turned and whispered, "If you're a lesbian, I know just the right bar for you." My mouth dropped. The boys were supposed to be the crème de la crème. How had this boy slipped through?

    He was disarming. His face had a combination of mischief and innocence that to this day I find attractive. He was not handsome, but an unearthly intelligence shone in his eyes. Years later they would dull, and after the gendarmes beat him senseless, an eye patch would cover one of them. He became a shell of his former self, a walking shadow. I try to remember him as he was at fourteen, the boy who turned my world upside down.


At the age of thirteen, the age of discovery, I was moved from an all-girls Catholic school to a boys' school. My parents had thought an English education would be better than a French one. It was the first year of integration for the school, and for the first couple of years, I was the only girl in my class. At the school, I met two people who were to become primary influences in my life: Fadi, my first boyfriend, and Dina, my best friend, who appeared at school two years later.

    I met Fadi on my first day in class. I sat behind him, where his first question to me was "Are you a lesbian?" My response was swift: "Your mother's cunt, you brother of a whore." The Lebanese dialect is filled with delectable curses, a luscious language all its own, of which I was a true poet, trained by none other than my father. He thought children's use of adult curse words tremendously amusing and trained all his children in the art of insult. I grew up an avid practitioner.

    Fadi's reaction was an ear-to-ear grin, hands coming together for one clap, and a look signaling welcome-to-my-world. We became fast friends, at first because he would not leave me alone. The first couple of days, I could not move anywhere without him tagging along, trying to involve me in some activity he was cooking up. We became friends and partners in crime.

    Fadi was not a handsome boy, nor did he mature into a handsome man. He had a long, pale face, with medium-long black hair, eternally unkempt, slightly frizzy. Depending on how the sun hit it, you could see single hairs sprouting independently out of the mess. His nose was long, downward, not outward, like the noses in ancient Greek drawings. His chest, skinny and caved in, as if malnourished. He was cute; all in all, not a particularly erotic package, but I always had peculiar tastes, somewhat exotic. Of all the boys in class, and I could have had my pick, being the only girl, he caught my fancy. His smile was his best and most memorable feature. Appearing quite natural, it was actually meticulously studied, its apparent innocence perfected in an attempt to confuse anyone who might suspect him capable of any of the acts he committed. I fell for his façade early on. I assumed he was a gentle, amazingly intelligent, studious boy. He was all that in a way, but as Miss Nahhas, our science teacher, once said, he was also the devil incarnate.

    Fadi's intelligence was remarkable. We were both the top of our class, but the difference between first, him, and second, me, was immeasurable. He had an understanding of mathematics that bordered on genius. I excelled at mathematics but I was not even in the same league. My grades were close to his in the nonsciences, English, Arabic, French, history, geography, and civics, simply because he did not care about these subjects. He winged it in all the exams, never studying, and still he got higher grades than I did most of the time. He was a mechanical wiz. The first contraption I saw him make was a motorized bicycle. He took a motor from a scooter, attached it to an old bicycle. I thought it was such a magnificent feat, only to be more impressed when he confessed to having stolen both the bike and the motor. We became soul mates.


Excerpted from I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine. Copyright © 2001 by Rabih Alameddine. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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