Review by Booklist Review
Various women follow their own singular paths in this excellent debut novel, an unusual hybrid of fiction and nonfiction. In a series of vignettes, Schwartz inventively reimagines the lives of historical figures, many bisexual or lesbian, including Italian novelist Rina Faccio, American painter Romaine Brooks, English novelist Virginia Woolf, English novelist and diarist Vita Sackville-West, Italian writer Lina Poletti, American writer and salon hostess Natalie Barney, Italian actress Eleonora Duse, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, American dancer Isadora Duncan, English poet and novelist Radclyffe Hall, American journalist and novelist Djuna Barnes, and American dancer, singer, and nightclub owner Ada Bricktop Smith. A few men appear, such as Oscar Wilde, but it is the women and their complex and daring lives that prevail. Schwartz weaves in and out of stories of subtle Sappho-inspired encounters. Inexplicably mesmerizing, After Sappho is a sui generis work of scholarly fiction written in truly poetic and evocative prose ("It was true that Virginia Woolf struck a match to our spirits and left us in a state of blue flame.") Difficult to fully explain, it is best experienced.
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Schwartz's brilliant debut novel (after the critical study The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives) recreates the lives of feminists in the early 20th century. The collective first-person "we" narrator--a Greek chorus devoted to the female poet Sappho--weaves the stories of writers, painters, and performers who, like Sappho, are attracted to women and are determined to become their authentic selves through art. Many of the threads revolve around Lina Poletti, who thrives in her classical studies in Bologna despite Italian laws restricting the rights of women. She writes poetry and plays about women, and has romances with another writer, Sibilla Aleramo, who'd been forced to marry the rapist who got her pregnant; and the stage actor Eleonora Duse, best known for her portrayal of Nora in A Doll's House. They, along with expat American writer Natalie Barney, poet Renée Vivien, and painter Romaine Brooks, carve out a place in European society during a time when lesbianism is ignored, not criminalized. Then comes WWI: Brooks and others drive ambulances at the front, Virginia Woolf begins writing about Cassandra, and Poletti writes war poems. At the war's end, a British parliamentarian accuses an actor of lesbianism in the press, thus placing women's sexuality under intense public scrutiny. As the chorus narrates, "we were plunged back into a history we had barely survived the first time." Schwartz's account of what happens next as the central characters resist oppression speaks volumes on their efforts, and she contributes her own work of art with this irresistible narrative. Schwartz breathes an astonishing sense of life into her timeless characters. (Jan.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
DEBUT Throughout history, women have struggled to be seen as humans rather than property, to make their own decisions and to love as they chose, and Schwartz's intricate debut--long-listed for the Booker Prize--chronicles the efforts of real-life women to liberate themselves from male dominance in the mid-1800s to the late 1920s. Born Sibilla Aleramo in 1876 Italy, Rina Faccio had to write under a pseudonym to publish her work. She was raped and then, by both law and custom, forced to marry her rapist. The women whose stories follow strove to break away from this appalling type of codified bondage, with figures from French actress Sarah Bernhardt to U.S. painter Romaine Brooks to British author Virginia Woolf expanding their genres and voices while fighting for their rights. The book ends in 1927, as women in Great Britain are being granted the right to vote. Based on extensive research, with sources provided at the book's end, Schwartz's vignettes not only imagine conversations between the women she features and their students, lovers, and/or friends but incorporates numerous direct quotes. VERDICT Readers interested in a dramatically fleshed-out account of the history of women's liberation, as well as the arts and literature generally, will find much to appreciate in this book. Recommended.--Joanna M. Burkhardt
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Women fight for love, art, and legal personhood in early-20th-century Europe. "The first thing we did was change our names," the prologue, set circa 630 B.C.E., begins. "We were going to be Sappho." This particular we, with which this formally inventive blend of fiction, biography, linguistics, and history is lushly narrated, invokes the collective voice of Sappho and women throughout time who have been taken with Sapphic desires--both corporeal and poetic. The story--told, fittingly, in fragments--follows the lives of women writers, artists, actors, dancers, and activists who lived in the early 20th century: Eleonora Duse, Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and more. (The novel is dedicated "a tuttə voi che siete Lina Poletti," a nod to the Italian writer and femminista who features prominently in these pages.) The fragments, each labeled with a year, a central character, the title of a book or poem, an article of Italian law, or some combination thereof, hop around in time but more or less lead the reader from the end of the 19th century up until the rise of fascism in 1920s Italy. Recurrent concerns are the love affairs and friendships between the women, cultural and legal attitudes toward lesbianism, the ancient echoes of tragic heroines in modern life, and the laws that protect men at the expense of the women they abuse. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator writes of the biographies of great men, "We had all read those old lives…those lives were invariable in shape, bowed taut from portentous birth to the elegiac mode employed at the funerals of great men." This book dares to invent a new form, one that embraces the maddening fragmentation of so many important women in history and reclaims it as a kind of revolutionary beauty. An exciting, luxurious work of speculative biography. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.