Book Review for “The First Actress” by C. W. Gortner.
Summary: “The tumultuous life of the legendary French star Sarah Bernhardt–the world’s first modern actress and international celebrity–dazzles in this stunning novel for readers of Love and Ruin and Mistress of the Ritz. From her beginnings as the daughter of a high-class courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt is brought to life by an internationally bestselling author praised for his historical novels featuring famous women.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, France – Paris; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Feminism, Theater, Actors.
I’m really not happy with the summary of this novel, but it doesn’t really matter. I think you get the gist of it – this is an historical, biographical, fiction novel about the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who bucked convention of the time and changed the way acting was done forever. You see, before Sarah, actors (at least those in France) just sort of spoke the lines while mostly facing the audience and using hand gestures. The whole idea of interacting with the other characters, and embodying their personalities just wasn’t done. But Sarah wanted to become her characters on stage, and while it pissed off her directors and shocked the traditional (read: wealthy) viewers, it eventually caught on.
But that was only part of her fame (or infamy, if you will). As the author’s notes say:
“She was a feminist before the concept was coined. A single mother before it was acceptable. A champion for equal pay when women had few employment options and fewer rights. An independent artist who believed art should be accessible to everyone, at a time when theater was deemed either a venue for rabble or a pantheon for classic posturing. And she did all this without anticipating the impact she would make.”
Pretty impressive, right? So, you can imagine that this, combined with the fact that she was technically Jewish (she converted to Catholicism but never denied her heritage, and anyway, Judaism doesn’t recognize someone converting out of our faith), which was yet another strike against her, made her a personality I’ve long wanted to read about. That’s why I was devastated when I was denied the ARC for this book last year. Thankfully, a deal on the Kindle version came up and so I grabbed myself a copy.
But that’s not what’s important here. What’s really important is how good (or bad) this book is, and thankfully, there’s a good deal to praise here. First of all, what you’ll find is a very straight-forward, first-person narrative which doesn’t hold back on any of the negative parts of Sarah’s life, even as she’s the narrator. Second, you’ll see that the bulk of this novel focuses on Sarah’s raise to fame, from her unfortunate childhood to the very start of the launching of her international career. Although Gortner could have written a whole second volume just about Sarah’s fame across the world, I’m actually glad that he decided to just give us a small epilogue of her older self, and leave it at that.
Now, I know what you might be thinking – can a male writer really get into the head of a female character, especially in first-person? I have to say that not all male writers can pull this off, and most seem to fare better when they write about female characters using a third-person narrative. However, I think in this case (and here he joins the ranks of David Blixt), we got a truly believable woman, warts and all, and even when she was being a true Diva, you couldn’t help but love her! Mind you, you can almost feel sorry for her mother Julia as well, but the animosity between the two of them is palatable throughout the novel, even when Sarah is rightfully angry with her. I also appreciated how Gortner included Sarah’s patriotic near-heroism for turning the Odéon Theater into a hospital during the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris in 1870-1. I had no idea that she’d done this, and it was very heartwarming to read about.
One of the best things about this book is that Gortner really included a whole lot of information about Sarah, but I never felt like I was being overwhelmed by the facts, and truly felt like the focus was on Sarah’s life and how she lived. If I have any niggles here, I’d say that as much as I truly enjoyed Gortner’s portrayal of Sarah in general, I can’t say that he made me totally fall in love with her. Perhaps this was because Sarah had a hard time loving herself. Even so, I was hoping that something here would bring a tear to my eye, and unfortunately, nothing did – not even the most tragic of Sarah’s experiences. Because of this, I’m afraid I can’t give it a full 5/5 rating, but I’ll still very warmly recommend this novel with a very healthy four and a half out of five stars.
“The First Actress” by C.W Gortner is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK, Wordery US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.