A Theater for Dreamers

Written by Polly Samson
Review by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

In 1960 the Greek island of Hydra hosted a community of writers and artists, including George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Leonard Cohen, his muse Marianne Ihlen, and her husband, Axel Jensen. Our eighteen-year-old narrator, Erica, comes to the island grieving the death of her mother and tries to get Charmian to fill that hole. Charmian is busy with her three children, her own writing, and her ill-mannered and ill-with-tuberculosis husband George. Still, Charmian takes Erica under her wing and draws her into their circle. The core of the novel describes about a year in the life of that community: the relationships, the rumors, the affairs, the drugs, and drinking. Samson draws a vivid picture of this time and place: a Mediterranean paradise shot through with poverty, friendship, abuse, genius, betrayal, love, and tragedy.

Samson’s writing is in places poetic and brilliant. I experienced the heat on my shoulders, the salt in the wind, the wine on my lips. In other places her metaphors were clumsy and confusing, forcing me to re-read. This story reminded me of The Great Gatsby, with its outsider-narrator full of nostalgia for a long-gone time and place. However, the first-person narrator cannot get into the minds of the famous in this community, and so this story lacks the depth of characterization I craved. There is no central conflict, with a plot that wanders through the hopes, dreams, and realities of the many characters. Having known only the name Leonard Cohen before reading this novel, I was glad to learn about so many new-to-me artists and saddened by the unfortunate paths their lives took after that year in the sun.