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Review – In America: A Novel

With extremely vivid details, Susan Sontag has written a novel of the immigrant experience, in her novel, In America. Not only does Sontag establish European life during the latter part of the nineteenth century, but she also depicts theater life and all the aspects of theater production quite brilliantly.

The main focus of In America concerns a woman named Maryna Zalezowksa, a famed Polish actress. She is adored and respected in her world of theater. But, discontent rules her, and she longs for more out of life, and for a more natural and ideal existence than the one lived in her homeland of Poland.

I believe part of her dissatisfaction is due to the fact that she is aging, and possibly afraid that she will not be given preference with good roles in the future. She sees the writing on the wall, so to speak, and does not want to fade away, theatrically speaking, with minor acting roles. She wants to leave while she is still at the top of her form.

Sontag has infused the pages with Maryna’s desire to go to America. Within her goal, her circle of close friends find it difficult to refuse her, and her desires become their desires. Her friends are clingers, and followers, and like being in the same circle as Maryna, and they like what they see as the enhancements of being her friend (or her lover). She manages to exercise her influence on those individuals and convinces them to take the leap and leave Poland and emigrate to America.

Maryna hopes to eventually open a commune, a farm, where one can live off the land, and spend their years in a natural environment. Yet, while packing, she did bring along her stage costumes, also making me wonder if she thought she might fail in her goals. If she did, she would have her acting career to fall back on.

Maryna, her husband board a ship for America where life is supposedly golden. From there events unfold, some happy and some tragic. The journey and its consequences of assimilation, and renewal of identity and of life is brilliantly portrayed through Sontag’s amazing sensitivity to the immigrant experience and to the political scenes unfolding throughout the book.

Poland was in a state of upheaval, and the political climate was intense, and lives were at risk within the confines of the continual changes. Maryna’s dreams of life in a communal environment fall to the wayside, and she returns to what she does best…acting.

Throughout In America, I had the feeling that Maryna was quite self-absorbed at times. Sontag subtly manages to convey that message quite clearly, if the reader takes the time to actually be cognizant of the content and the underlying signs, symbols and metaphors. This self-absorption leads to her using her acting skills to her advantage whenever possible in her personal life.

Sontag writes with vivid word visuals, and I felt as if I was right there in the midst of life during the late nineteenth century. In America is a long book, and isn’t a fast read, but for me it was a satisfying novel. Sontag’s comprehension and mastery of details and history, even the most minute of them, is masterful. The historical content within the pages of In America is quite valuable. She not only gives the reader insight into the dynamics of political unrest in Poland, but also of American assimilation and identity. Sontag explores life in general during a time when great waves of diverse immigrants were vying for a foothold in order to begin life anew in America. T he immigrant had to be strong and determined, no matter the situation thrown at them. They had to have an eye for the moment and take advantage of situations dealt them. In other words, they had to be a good actor.

In America: A Novel is a brilliant metaphor for the political and social aspects that led not only to emigration to America, but also to the disillusionment and/or to the satisfaction of many goals and dreams after arriving there. Susan Sontag conveys a strong message, one that reverberates throughout the pages of In America.


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