The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt

C. W. Gortner. Random House, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-1-5247-9907-6
Gortner (The Romanov Empress) captures the drama and pathos of legendary actor Sarah Bernhardt’s life in this enchanting work. The illegitimate child of a Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt is raised in Brittany until her wet nurse can no longer house her. In 1852, Sarah’s mother, Julie, sends her unloved, eight-year-old daughter to boarding school in Versailles. After Sarah’s theatrical gifts shine in a school play, one of her mother’s longtime patrons helps arrange acting training for her as well as a contract with the august Comédie-Française. The school’s rigid adherence to tradition clashes with Sarah’s questioning approach, and she leaves the Comédie in the first of many stormy changes from one theatrical company to the next. Becoming pregnant by Comte Émile de Kératry, an aristocratic paying lover, she decides to keep the baby—her only child, Maurice—despite the social taboo and the comte’s rejection. After Bernhardt does heroic work as a volunteer nurse and infirmary manager during the Franco-Prussian War, she becomes one of the most acclaimed actors of her age through a mix of talent, hard work, and savvy self-promotion. Skillful first-person narration evokes Bernhardt’s fierce energy and tempestuous liaisons, the vulnerability borne of her wounding childhood, and her struggles against misogyny and anti-Semitism. Gortner does justice to this trailblazing celebrity and her fascinating era. (May)
Reviewed on : 03/11/2020
Release date: 05/26/2020
Genre: Fiction
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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