I, The Divine | Rose water and pistachio cupcakes
My grandfather named me for the great Sarah Bernhardt. He considered having met her in person the most important event of his life. He talked about her endlessly. By the age of five, I was able to repeat each of his stories verbatim. And I did.
Rabih Alameddine’s “I, The Divine: A Novel In First Chapters” is just what the name suggests—the first chapter of main character Sarah Nour El-Din’s memoir, over and over again. Sarah, who grew up in 1970’s Beirut, Lebanon, has decided to turn her life into a work of art, but she can’t seem to get past the first chapter. Each chapter in this book is a fresh attempt at chapter one, each one different from the one before it.
In the beginning, Sarah tries to begin with her childhood, growing up in the middle of the war in Beirut and hearing stories about the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress her grandfather named her after. She writes about the divorce between her Lebanese father and American mother, who, after failing to produce a son, was consequently shipped back to her home country. We also learn about the previously all-boys school the “evil-stepmother” shipped her off to and how it was at that school she fell in love with a trouble-making boy named Fadi.
After a few childhood chapters, Sarah changes gears and we see her as an adult, living in America, comparing the “great loves” of her life. It’s a pretty big jump, but the remaining chapters do a good job of filling in the gap—a gap that includes two marriages, one child, one new boyfriend, several career changes, and a battle with depression.
And through it all, each chapter is called “Chapter One.” Some of these chapters are incomplete, ending in the middle of a sentence, and others are full stories. A few chapters include a title page, a prologue, or an introduction. Some chapters are in French, which really threw me for a loop. As she writes and rewrites the first chapter, we begin to put the puzzle pieces together in the life of slightly neurotic, fun-loving woman who simultaneously considers herself the black sheep of her family, and acknowledges she can’t actually escape them, even with an ocean between them.
I’ve read a few reviews that say the format of this book is nothing more than a gimmick. And while I’m not sure if I agree with that (mostly because Alameddine was an established writer before this book), I do have some issues with it.
The beginning was repetitive, but understandably so. Writer’s block is not pretty, lyrical or chronological, and Alameddine portrays that well. Where the book began to lose me, however, is in the different POVs. Near the end, certain chapters have completely different narrators, including one chapter told by Sarah’s stepmother. It was confusing because it came AFTER a chapter where Sarah describes waking up at her computer and seeing the unfinished manuscript on the screen. So, was the chapter written by Sarah in the voice of her stepmother, and therefore tainted by her negative feelings? Or was it a chapter of reality?
It's hard to say, but this wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, at least. I'm pretty sure we can all relate to Sarah's multiple false starts—in her real life and in writing her memoir. Try and try again, y'all.
I, The Divine: A Novel In First Chapters : 4 Stars
Since I have zero knowledge of Lebanese desserts, I did some heavy research beforehand, discovered a few similarities among recipes, and finally decided to go with a recipe I found for rose water and pistachio cupcakes. Rose water is an all-natural extract, used almost daily in Middle Eastern cuisine for both sweet and savory foods. It took me FOREVER to find it, (Finally found it at an Indian food store in town!) but in the end it was worth the hunt. These cupcakes are light and airy and they smell amazing, too! Caution: putting rose water in the icing might have been overkill. Next time, I might stick to only adding it in the batter.
And speaking of starting over and over again--I had to bake these cupcakes THREE TIMES. It was my own fault. There's nothing wrong with the recipe, just my eyes. Oops!
Rose water and pistachio cupcakes : 3 stars
Rose water and pistachio cupcakes
150g (5oz) butter, softened
150g (5oz) caster sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
225g (80z) self-raising flour
7 full oz buttermilk
Chopped pistachios, toasted (You can totally buy these already toasted, but if you'd like to do it yourself: Bake pistachios on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about 6–8 minutes. While warm, rub them with a paper towel to remove the skins.)
Rose water buttercream icing
For the cupcakes:
1. Preheat the oven to 350.
2. Sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl cream butter and sugar. Should be light and fluffy.
4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. Stir in the rosewater.
6. Fold in half the sifted flour, then the milk, then the rest of the flour. Fold gently, but combine well after each addition.
7. Gently fold in the pistachios.
8. Bake for 18-20 minutes. Place on wire racks to cool completely.
For the buttercream
1. Cream the butter, then gradually stir in the sugar until smooth and creamy.
2. Add the rosewater and milk.
3. Optional: Garnish with candied or edible rose petals, or toasted pistachios.
“I wonder whether there is such a thing as a sense of individuality. Is it all a facade, covering a deep need to belong? Are we simply pack animals desperately trying to pretend we are not?”
“I believe one has to escape oneself to discover oneself.”
“How can I expect readers to know who I am if I do not tell them about my family, my friends, the relationships in my life? Who am I if not where I fit in the world, where I fit in the lives of the people dear to me?”
“I realized when it came to men, I did not pick the beautiful or the correct. I picked the wrong one.”
“How can she tell the difference between freedom and unburdening?”
“I have been blessed with many curses in my life, not the least of which was being born half Lebanese and half American. Throughout my life, these contradictory parts battled endlessly, classed, never coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I shuffled ad nauseam between the need to assert my individuality and the need to belong to my clan, being terrified of loneliness and terrorized of losing myself in relationships. I was the black sheep of my family, yet an essential part of it.”
Happy Baking, everybody!