Forget the old boys club: The most engaging historical fiction is being written by women. What's worse, they have the audacity to make it fun.
In "Ahab's Wife," Sena Jeter Naslund dared to revise Melville's classic "Moby Dick." Anita Shreve re-created a tense custody battle at the turn of the 20th century in "Fortune's Rocks." And Tracy Chevalier painted a stirring portrait of a maid in Johannes Vermeer's house.
These recent books share the same strengths: All of them are carefully researched, lavishly detailed, and expertly plotted. But they also share the same weakness: Despite their historical accuracy, they can't resist the temptation to project modern sensibilities backward onto their feminist heroines. Ironically, the result is to render 200 years of feminist activism essentially irrelevant. Who needs equal access to education? Chevalier's maid helps Vermeer improve his compositions. Equality before the law? Please. Shreve's young mother gets what's hers despite the legal bias against her. Una, Nasland's pre-Civil War berwoman, could edit Ms. Magazine.
Sontag doesn't make this mistake in her rich new novel, inspired by the life of Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska. When Sontag's Maryna reacts against the constraints of her time, she does so in ways that seem historically accurate. This is no NOW posterwoman; Maryna is a character riddled with contradictions, carving out the kind of power available to her, making the necessary compromises and hating them at the same time.
The novel opens with a daring, almost mystical chapter in which Sontag imagines herself conceiving of her characters at a lavish dinner in Russian-occupied Poland in 1875. It's like watching a projectionist trying to bring the film into focus. This kind of self-referential, post-modern trick could be annoying, but Sontag is a brilliant writer who doesn't gauge her intelligence by how confused she can make her audience.
As the sun of her circle of admirers, Maryna is at the zenith of her power in Polish theater, but she yearns for a kind of simple authenticity. "She had loved being an actress because the theater seemed to her nothing less than the truth," Sontag writes. "Acting in a play, one of the great plays, you became better than you really were."
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Maryna is drawn to an even more elaborate stage of self-improvement: She convinces her husband and their friends to take a luxurious trip half- way around the world to begin a utopian community in California.
Of course, Maryna is doomed to discover that simplicity is a complex quality to acquire. Communal living works fine unless people are involved. The faux community they buy in Anaheim promises "the purifying simplicities of rustic life as lived by the privileged," but the laws of economics play havoc with their vineyard's success.
Clinging to the people she pushes away, Maryna and her friends can't escape the multiple ironies of their situation. "A queen who has abdicated will always be a queen to those who knew her on the throne," Sontag notes. Her devoted husband is tormented by his desire for others. Ryszard, a brilliant writer, is so desperately in love with her that he can't compose anything worthwhile. Their friends Julian and Wanda find their marriage growing more hateful in this bucolic paradise. "Doesn't it seem very American," Ryszard sighs, "that America has its America, its better destination where everyone dreams of going?"
When the community falters, as they all suspected it would, Maryna hopes to reincarnate her former theatrical glory. But she discovers painfully that the costs and rewards of being a great European actress are not the same as being an American celebrity. The result is a fascinating exploration of what's real in a culture that preaches authenticity but worships artificiality.
Sontag is so comfortable spinning these big ideas through the details of her novel that they never seem heavy or intrusive. "In America" we discover the country as the curtain rises on the modern age. After so many moving stories from Irish immigrants, the perspective of aristocratic Poles is unusual, but the plot they encounter belongs to us all.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
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