A glorious, sweeping new novel from the bestselling author of The Volcano Lover.
The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag's bestselling 1992 novel, retold the love story of Emma Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson with consummate power. In her enthralling new novel--once again based on a real story--Sontag shows us our own country on the cusp of modernity.
In 1876 a group of Poles led by Maryna Zalewska, Poland's greatest actress, travel to California to found a "utopian" commune. Maryna, who has renounced her career, is accompanied by her small son and husband; in her entourage is a rising young writer who is in love with her. The novel portrays a West that is still largely empty, where white settlers confront native Californians and Asian coolies. The image of America, and of California--as fantasy, as escape, as radical simplification--constantly meets a more complex reality. The commune fails and most of the émigrés go home, but Maryna stays and triumphs on the American stage.
In America is a big, juicy, surprising book--about a woman's search for self-transformation, about the fate of idealism, about the world of the theater--that will captivate its readers from the first page. It is Sontag's most delicious, most brilliant achievement.
In America is the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction.
As she did in The Volcano Lover, Sontag crafts a novel of ideas in which real figures from the past enact their lives against an assiduously researched, almost cinematically vivid background. Here again her signal achievement is to offer fresh and insightful commentary on the social and cultural currents of an age, with a distinctive understanding of how historical events forged character and destiny. If the story of renowned Polish actress Maryna Zalewska cannot compare in drama to that of Admiral Nelson and the Hamiltons (as a protagonist, Maryna remains somewhat shadowy and elusive), Sontag succeeds in conveying how the political and intellectual atmosphere of Poland and the U.S. in the late 19th century affected her heroine's life. Beautiful, famous and restless at 35, Maryna decides to leave her native land, suffering under Russian occupation. She convinces her husband, Count Bogdan Demboski, her would-be lover, journalist Ryszard Kierul, and various other members of the Warsaw intelligentsia to emigrate to America, where, influenced by Fourier's social philosophy, they will establish an experimental farm commune in southern California. Predictably, the community fails to prosper and falls into debt; idealism gives way to disillusionment; Maryna decides to resume her career, achieving immediate acclaim; and the romantic triangle moves to a new stage. Meanwhile, Sontag makes meaningful associations between a woman's need for freedom and independence, a nation's suffering under a conqueror's heel and the common human quest for "newness, emptiness, pastlessness... this dream of turning life into pure future" that colored many immigrants' views of America. She leads readers into the book via a long, breathless, one-paragraph prologue, narrated as if in a fever dream; indeed, it is not until many pages into the novel that the date and the geographical setting are established. Exemplary at imagining an actor's needs, impulses and sources of inspiration, Sontag also conveys the theatrical world of the time (East Lynne was the most popular play; Sarah Bernhardt reigned in Paris) almost palpably. There are few dramatic peaks and valleys in Maryna's story, but the historical backdrop--with pithy and evocative descriptions of American cities at the turn of the last century, cameo portraits of salty frontier types, and snippets of Western lore--supplies the vigor that the main plot often fails to engender. While this book does not exert the passionate energy of The Volcano Lover, it is a provocative study of a woman's life and the historical setting in which she moves. Author tour; U.K. rights to Jonathan Cape.