Review

I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

by Rabih Alameddine



In this mildly successful fictional memoir, Beirut-born Sarah Nour
El-Din (named after "the divine" actress Sarah Bernhardt) has the
worst case of writer's block in human history. I, THE DIVINE never
gets past the first chapter: indeed, it is made up entirely of
first chapters. The book explores Sarah's life --- her traditional
Lebanese family, her failed relationships, her futile search for
identity.

Sarah is a born hybrid. Her mother is an American who comes to
Beirut seeking adventure and marries Sarah's father, a Lebanese
doctor. Sarah's parents fall out of love with each other and
divorce, an event that shatters Sarah's girlhood. She hates her new
stepmother, a simple Lebanese woman, who nevertheless becomes a
successful media mogul. Sarah moves to New York when she marries
Omar, so he can complete his studies at Columbia University. Sarah
and Omar have a son, but they grow apart. He wants to return to
Beirut. She falls in love with America.

Following in her parents' footsteps, Sarah divorces Omar. She then
begins a number of failed relationships --- in San Francisco, she
falls in love with a closet homosexual named David --- while
becoming a well known painter. Although her family disapproves of
her promiscuous ways, Sarah's father begs her to move back home to
Beirut. She travels back and forth between the US and Beirut but
she can't bring herself to stay: Beirut is war-torn and filled with
bad memories --- Sarah's sister is killed during the Civil War; her
girlhood sweetheart is tortured for his political beliefs; another
sister, a nurse, goes insane and murders seven hospital
patients.

I, THE DIVINE is a novel about identity. Sarah is caught between
worlds and traditions. She can neither adjust to America nor
Lebanon, nor can she forge a successful relationship. She doesn't
know where to call home: in New York, she misses Lebanon. In
Lebanon, she yearns for New York. She's the black sheep of her
family.

The subject matter of I, THE DIVINE is reminiscent of V. S.
Naipaul, although Alameddine lacks Mr. Naipaul's stunning verbal
gifts as he tries his hand at a variety of genres: his book is part
novel, part memoir, part travel journal. At times, its formlessness
is frustrating, especially when a few of the chapters are written
in French (alas, this reviewer does not speak French). I, THE
DIVINE is too episodic to sustain a consistent narrative voice, and
the reader tires of all the narrative stops and starts. One first
chapter repeats what we've already learned in another first chapter
--- we'd like to see the story move beyond its beginnings.

Mr. Alameddine's concept of "a novel in first chapters" is
certainly unique, but it doesn't provide anything original. A
traditional narrative, with a more linear story, would have been
equally effective. Such as it is, I, THE DIVINE is a novel that
never quite takes off. Too bad, because Mr. Alameddine is obviously
a skilled writer. He doesn't need to resort to literary
innovations.  

Reviewed by Chuck Leddy on January 22, 2011

I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters
by Rabih Alameddine

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039304209X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393042092