Cover Image: After Sappho

After Sappho

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Member Reviews

I loved the concept and was really looking forward to this but the execution wasn't for me. I typically love books written in vignettes but I felt really lost with this one. Multiple characters that was often hard to find their purpose and I overall struggled to remain interested to keep going. DNF'd at 20%.
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Wow did I struggle to get through this one. Sapphic modernists should have been exactly my cup of tea, but I had to force myself to finish and have many issues with this book. 

First all, on a very basic level, the Sappho/Cassandra dichotomy just didn't quite work for me. I see what Schwartz was trying to do, but I have very little interest in the Greeks, and the post-Sappho optimism (?) of Cassandra was poorly executed without as much follow through as the Sappho section. Frankly, I think Schwartz got too excited at getting to write about Virginia and Vita and just forgot to bulk up the literary devices. This also means the first and second halves have very different vibes, and that was part of why I struggled to finish. 

Secondly, I am truly very disappointed that we got 1-2 pages of 2 Black women in a book about queer women published in a post-2020 world. Also, the classism! Everyone is reading things from their villas and their chateaus and their private islands! These wealthy white lesbians have been covered by historians and queer theorists and many others for decades, and I don't think this book had anything revolutionary to say. 

Thirdly, I have been made aware that several of the main characters became avowed fascists and were extremely antisemitic (Woolf I knew about, Barney and others, I did not). Only one is called out for this in the narrative, and it just makes me very uncomfortable with the way they were portrayed as sapphic feminist revolutionaries to be admired. 

Overall, this was a very well-researched attempt at a novel made up of fragments, but it just didn't work for me. I can't help but think the Booker Prize team just nominated it for the attempt, rather than the execution. 

Thanks so much to the publisher for the eARC. It's a shame that this one didn't work for me.
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Thank you to NetGalley and W. W. Norton & Company/Liveright for allowing me to read this ARC!

Content Warning: misogyny, violence, rape, sexual harassment, racism, domestic violence, abortion, homophobia.


Following various famous lesbians during the nineteenth century as they try to capture the essence of Sappho, the Greek poet who proudly professed her love for other women, After Sappho is a series of vignettes showing both the hardship and beauty in the lives of these women -- from Romaine Brooks, the painter known for her shades of gray, to Natalie Barney, an American writer who created a literary salon in Paris that became the center of the era's lesbian community. Struggling against the crushing boot of male oppression, these women nevertheless rose to great heights, and have a special place not only in the memory of women and lesbians, but the rest of the world, too. 

First and foremost, I want to applaud Schwartz's creativity. The imaginativeness of this novel is perhaps its strongest feature -- it wouldn't be quite right to say it's totally unique (as I believe Saidiya Hartman has a similar approach), but it certainly is something you don't encounter often. It's a fascinating interplay between reality and the imagination, and Schwartz's poetic, lyrical style of writing further adds to the dreamy sensation of reading it. Even in this day and age, where there is much more freedom in the exploration of gender and sexuality, many young lesbians will relate to the fervent desire of these women to explore a shared history, a connected past. It's not lost on me that while these women were reading tomes about Sappho, translating her poems from their original Greek, we are reading about them as they were doing it.

Many of the women included here are well-known, and have had much written about them. Virginia Woolf, for example, is featured heavily here, as is her lover, Vita Sackville-West, as is Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Radclyffe Hall, Sarah Bernhardt, and many others. It would be remiss not to include them in some capacity, anyway -- they are responsible for influencing modern art and literature in so many ways, not to mention the lesbian community. There are a few others that I hadn't heard of previously, namely Sibilla Aleramo, one of the first openly feminist writers in Italy, as well as Lina Poletti, one of the first women to declare herself a lesbian in Italy. My only major complaint here is that, in some ways, I wish Schwartz had focused on lesser known lives. We have a wealth of information already on these women; wouldn't some of the ones we know less about have been particularly exciting to expand upon?

Josephine Baker and Ada "Bricktop" Smith are also briefly mentioned, but there's barely any time given to them at all. It made me question, speaking truthfully, why they were included at all. It felt as if they were namedropped, and that was it. I do understand, to some degree, why this is: Schwartz is focusing specifically on the set of women who are slightly interwoven with one another during this period, but still, what was the point of very briefly mentioning Ada and Josephine just to completely leave them out later?

As a whole, the book suffers from a sense of being somewhat disjointed. Because of the stylistic choice Schwartz makes, none of these women ever feel truly fleshed out, and the brevity of each section leaves you wishing that a bit more time had been spent on them. 

All in all, I don't think that this is a completely successful venture, but I do applaud Schwartz's creativity and ambition. I'll be interested to see what her next novel holds!
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After Sappho is a gorgeously written series of vignettes that tell the stories of so many women - as artists, poets, writers, actresses, trailblazers - as lovers and friends and exes and muses. 

I'm genuinely in awe and will definitely buy a physical copy of this book to mark up and keep and cry over. 

Interspersed through these womens' stories are also historical codes and laws that oppressed women, sapphists, lesbians. There are case files from male psychologists and psychiatrists demeaning and demonizing women who prefer to be with other women. These are hard to read at times and feels so familiar even in 2023. 

But also in this fictionalized history, Sappho and sapphists before look on to tell these stories, using the personal "we" POV at times and letting us really feel the connection, how queer sapphists have always found each other and recognized each other. 

I cannot praise and love this book enough.
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This is an.... interesting book. It's not really a novel, but it's nowhere near dry enough to say it's like reading Wikipedia. There's definite flair and narrative movement to it. But each chapter is broken up so oddly, with names and dates as headers every few paragraphs. It IS really good, and definitely worth reading, just be prepared for it to be... strange.
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This was a well-executed novel although parts of it feel a little devoid of life. The concept is what is truly the winner here and regardless, will make a great read for anyone who is interested in diving into some of the lives of these characters.
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This one unfortunately was not for me. I think the concept is interesting, and the writing was strong, however the narrative distance kept me too removed from any characters to feel enticed to pick this up on any regular basis. I DNFed around 25%. I needed more to draw me in.
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Unfortunately, I am choosing not to finish this book. I think the concept is really brilliant, but I personally found it little hard to follow. There are many characters right from the beginning, and it jumps around. From what I did read of it, I think lovers of literary fiction will enjoy this and love picking apart all of the thoughtful details.
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Historical yet completely of the moment. It's like picking up on the thread of a very long conversation, taken in bits of pieces. It's gorgeously written.

Of course this book won't be for everyone, which is part of the issues with conversations. If you haven't been deeply involved, it quickly becomes opaque or feels dry. In reality it's definitely not, and is gorgeously written. Schwartz is witty and does things with the text that's conscious about the predecessors but playful and inventive in her own right. It's written for a very specific audience, and a book for readers-- readers still scrambling to see themselves in books just as much as these women did. 

It's so well woven and fleshed out with a masterful job blending research and historical fiction. (Any innaccuracies are minor enough to not detract, and some play into the legend that the women have created around themselves intentionally)..

Very thought provoking and it's a book that will linger with me.
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BIG thanks in advance to Selby Wynn Schwartz, the publisher of said book, and NetGalley for the free copy in exchange for an HONEST, UNBIASED REVIEW.

After Sappho is a debut work by the skilled and knowledgeable Schwartz, of which I respect her work but I cannot say it resonated too deeply with me. I was drawn to this book from the opener in the summary being:
“The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” and by the pursuit to be more knowledgeable and considerate of other walks of life.

First and foremost, I am perhaps not the target audience being a queer man, therefore a lot of my opinions are informed by what I've read from After Sappho, research on the author, and what other reviewers who relate closer to the debut are expressing.

The format is aesthetic and easy to read, though initially confusing. The format likely has more to do with me than with the author, but it read to me like a somewhat dry essay, though I believe that Schwartz seems to know what she is talking about-- a respectable, crucial aspect to any work like this.

Another part that had lightly irked me was that the work was seemingly very exclusive of women of color.  A lot of the women seem to be in more privileged positions, whether they're located in Europe or North America, and other privileges I won't mention for the sake of the length of the review.

With only love in my heart, this book does feel like the type of work that is instantly praised and recommended because it does something not as common, because it involves queer women, and because it appears to be very informed.

Overall, I'd still recommend a read so you can gain your own opinion, and/or if you already enjoy these types of works. Though I did not enjoy it, that does not mean you won't or that it is bad.
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I read 30% of this and while the premise is fascinating, I will not be finishing. I'm not sure if the format of the digital copy is confusing or the style of the book is confusing, but I found the journal-entry format difficult to follow. The characters, while their stories do intersect at different points, are not developed with enough backstory to really connect with their stories, and a lot of the political and social commentary could have been a completely different book for how it flowed with the characters' perspectives.
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I wanted to love it but I just couldn't. The vignettes could be absolutely wonderful, especially with the selected female authors highlighted, but it felt disjointed at times. I loved how the characters converged at certain points overlapping their stories but the abruptness in some of the vignettes ending before moving on left this reader wanting more and occasionally confused until a few vignettes later. Those abrupt endings gave the book a more academic paper feel rather than a novel telling a cohesive story.

The topics are very relevant with everything going on today but I would have liked to have seen more women outside the Eurocentric group selected who were just as trailblazing and "relevant" during the same time span. I enjoyed it because of what the women did to break barriers and the molds they were cast into but I just couldn't connect to them like I'd hoped. I felt that lack of connection a disservice to the author who had some truly marvelous passages scattered throughout, especially in the latter half of the book.

Maybe that is the biggest issue for me, it felt like the author couldn't decide if it was a history book or a novel. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it fell squarely into either category because I would definitely read a longer book on the women highlighted as a history text or a more fleshed out novel that could really invest in the characters and allow the authors more elegant passages to shine. BUT I can appreciate the style it was written in which sometimes did give the feel of Sappho's works.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Unfortunately, I will be unable to finish this one. While the concept is unique to me and was promising, it fell flat for me. On the one hand, this might be my bad because when I initially requested it I thought it was going to be nonfiction. On the other hand, it was difficult to parse what truly was fact about the historical figures and what was fabricated for their storylines. 

Furthermore, for a feminist book published in 2023 that explores feminist and sapphic main characters who are icons throughout history, this portrayed a very narrow white feminist worldview. There are so many prominent and important Black feminists, Indigenous feminists, and feminists of colour who are sapphic and whose stories could have been explored, and should be explored because they've been marginalized in feminist texts time and time again. However, this work spotlighted women who have already been spotlighted in mainstream contemporary feminist portrayals. I especially expect more from feminist scholars who should know better. 

Maybe one day I'll pick this up again, but overall it was not what I'd hoped it would be.
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A delightful excursion into the lives, loves, accomplishments and endeavors of many creative sapphists in the arts in the late 19th and early 20th Century, told in extraordinarily sparse lyrical prose that evokes the poetry fragments left behind by Sappho.
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After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz is a new literary novel that presents to the reader intertwining fragments of the lives of numerous queer feminists from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The lives are centered in Europe (although a few noted American expats are included.) They are writers, painters, singers, dances, actresses – in short they are artists and intellectuals united by a desire to follow the footsteps of the ancient Greek poet, Sappho.

The prose is lush and the women fascinating. The story is presented in a vaguely chronological fashion, but world events are shown only in how they impact the lives of women – the collective lives of women. It’s a brutal look at how women have been treated over the ages and how they have striven to rise above their circumstances and the rules imposed upon them by men. Individual men are essentially excised from this story, demonstrating how superfluous they were. It is a celebration of women.
										
It is not an easy book to read. The various women swim in and out of the narrative, presented by a “we” narrator who is as nebulous as the individual women. There is no cohesive plot. Nevertheless, the beauty of the story is seen when these fragments are taken as a whole.
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I see the appeal and literary merit of this novel, although I can’t say the reading experience was my favorite. Told in first person plural tense “we” are shown these influential artists’ lives through vignettes. While the structure is unique and lends itself to the small snapshots of these women’s lives and opinions, I wish it were more linear and separated by person. It jumps around vignette to vignette to different people, which became hard to follow when a woman would be brought up that we had a few paragraphs about 50 pages ago. 

I liked the focus on queer women in Italy, France, Greece, etc. during this time and how they forged their own way and found their own families in each other. More narrative non-fiction than historical fiction, this was informative and interesting, while sometimes dry.
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DNF. Not a bad book by any means and is beautifully written, but I wasn’t able to finish it because things happening in real life meant I didn’t have the energy and concentration needed to fully enjoy it.
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Halfway through reading After Sappho, my friend texted me: "Ok so After Sappho is one of the most beautiful books ever????" Another responded "I was constantly gasping." I have read few books as luminous and luscious as this one, and it truly does beg to be read in community, the collective storytelling of its Greek chorus mirrored by a shared reading. The novel (is novel the right word?) traces a Sapphic lineage through the 19th and early 20th century, weaving together portraits of queer women to illuminate the way that cultural change depends on the radical bravery of individuals. Language is at its center: whether through repeated references to arcane grammatical structures or echoes of the writing styles of the women in question (Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness, Gertrude Stein's repetition), the novel serves as an argument for the power of art to subvert and reimagine. I loved it, and also I really wish that I read it in a class instead of by myself.

Conscientious readers will begin the novel with pen and paper ready. Every page contains a moment worth Googling, and I found myself stalled both by my desire to know more and my irritation at having so little context for what I was reading. That this dynamic history is not common knowledge is certainly part of Schwartz's point, but the effect of my ignorance was that I often felt a little lost in time and space. 

Still, I would read After Sappho again. Besides its gorgeous language, the pleasure of the novel for me was the sense that it contains gifts only available to those with the knowledge or experience to see them. Schwartz's novel is a gorgeous answer to the question of what queer history looks like: fragmented, collective, ambiguous, and beautiful.

Thank you to W.W. Norton and NetGalley for the ARC!
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i really loved learning more about queer artists, mostly lesbian. I liked the vignettes and the longer pieces, it felt a bit disjointed but overall very poetic.
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Truly unique concept and execution. I had trouble following at times, possibly just because of an e-reader format. Definitely worth the read for creativity.
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