Before she began writing "The Dream Lover" (Random House, $28), Elizabeth Berg knew only the punchline version of fellow novelist George Sand (1804-1876): cigar-smoking, cross-dressing lover of Chopin.

Then Berg read The Writer's Almanac's summary of Sand's life, which intrigued her. "It presented her as a really complex, contradictory sort of person," Berg said.

She looked around for a novel about Sand, but couldn't find one. She tried to persuade her friend Nancy Horan, author of the historical novels "Loving Frank" and "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," to write one about Sand. But Horan told Berg, "No, you do it."

Berg has written more than a dozen works of fiction set in the 20th century, including the Oprah's Book Club selection "Open House" (2000). But "The Dream Lover" is her first historical novel.

"This one was the hardest thing I have ever done," she said during a telephone interview.

Despite the challenges of translating her research into fiction, she found many points of affinity with Sand, who was born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in Paris. To start, both are daughters of military men. Berg called both Sand and herself prolific writers who've had to defend themselves for being prolific; oversensitive people, "swept away by beauty"; domestic and dog lovers.

Berg has Sand tell her own life story, moving back and forth between her childhood and her years as a prominent writer, friend or lover of such greats and near-greats as the poet Alfred de Musset, composer Frederic Chopin and novelist Gustave Flaubert. It's a passionate, dramatic story of strong-willed women: not only Sand, but her mother and grandmother as well.

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Sand began wearing boys' clothes as a girl to make horseback riding easier. She donned trousers again as a woman in Paris for practical reasons: Passing for a man, she could buy less expensive tickets for the theatrical productions she reviewed for Le Figaro. But the androgynous style suited her, even spiritually. Berg dramatizes a vision Sand had as a 13-year-old:

"But finally my own version of God came to me in a dream, complete with a name: Corambe. He was a warm and compassionate being with a tender and unwavering regard for me. He had the humanity of Jesus and the radiant beauty of the angel Gabriel. He was graceful and poetic and ever attentive to my feelings. And though he was a male, he nonetheless dressed oftentimes in women's clothes."

Berg said it's clear to her that the great love of Sand's life was the actress Marie Dorval, a star in the Paris of her time. In her afterword, Berg notes that scholars disagree about how intimate Sand and Dorval were. She writes them a love scene; she also has Sand speak these Romantic words: "It is not the body that attracts me; it is the spirit that dwells within. Once I love the spirit, I come to love the body, even as, if I come upon my beloved's gloves, I love them. Is it the gloves I love? Of course not. It is that they belong to the person who has captured my heart."

"I think her love affairs were tragic, but her life itself [was] such a glorious triumph," Berg said. She relishes the image of Sand as a "deeply contented old person," living in the country, making clothes for her son Maurice's puppet theater.

Many of the issues Sand faced will also resonate for contemporary readers: balancing work and family life, for example, and serious consideration of the personal cost of making a life as an artist.