The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt

Ballantine. May 2020. 432p. ISBN 9781524799076. $28. F
From showing off her pet cheetah around London to allegedly sleeping in a casket, actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) definitely knew how to make an impression. In his latest novel, historical fiction veteran Gortner (The Romanov Empress) explores her rise to fame from her childhood as the daughter of a courtesan to her ascension to one of the most acclaimed (and gossiped about) actresses of her age. Along the way, she promotes an acting method that breaks all the period’s established rules, fends off jealous rivals, and encounters many other big names of the era, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Oscar Wilde among them. Bernhardt’s life was so full of intriguing incidents and affairs that Gortner faces a major challenge in trying to limit her to a 400-page novel (he notes as much in his acknowledgments).
VERDICT Parts of the plot feel a little rushed and more time might have been spent exploring some of Bernhardt’s choices, but overall Gortner has created a compelling portrait that will certainly whet readers’ appetites to learn more about this charismatic figure. Recommended for fans of Melanie Benjamin and Allison Pataki.

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