Rabih Alameddine, Author . Norton $23.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-04209-2

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 satisfaction of a linear story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 10/29/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Genre: Fiction
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