I have two books on my reading list that have been linked in my mind–both deal with Russian ballerinas reflecting on their full lives. In fact, they’re so linked I was surprised to discover one of them was historical fiction, but both protagonists were caught up in a particular epoch that flavors their story. Tasty, right?
Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
When Nina Revskaya, former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, decides to auction her remarkable jewelry, she hopes to draw a curtain on her past. Instead, she is overwhelmed by memories of glorious and heartbreaking events that changed her life’s course half a century before.
In Russia, she discovered the theater, fell in love with a famed poet, and became—with her closest friends—a victim of Stalinist aggression. A terrible discovery led to a deadly act of betrayal—and to Nina’s escape to Boston. Now, an associate at the Boston auction house and a Russian professor are unraveling a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, stirring up revelations that will have life-altering consequences for all.
As a kid, I wasn’t exposed to that many stories set in Stalinist or even just Soviet Russia–it threw me for a loop the first time I watched the original Star Trek as a kid and Chekov, a character in a future where it was assumed Soviet Russia continued on, referred to St. Petersburg as Leningrad. Soviet Russia is utterly foreign to me, and I suppose that’s why it interests me. And, of course, Nina is a grand ex-ballerina who sounds quite interesting herself.
Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness enjoyed it, although she found characters other than Nina to be rendered flatly. Beth at Beth Fish Reads thoroughly loved it, even saying, “I feel as if this novel had been written just for me.” From both reviews, it sounds like a novel that rewards reflection and ponderous reading–as winter closes in, I think I’ll pick this up when I have a day to devote to it.
Russian Winter was published on September 7.
The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp
Exiled in Paris, tiny, one-hundred-year-old Mathilde Kschessinska sits down to write her memoirs before all that she believes to be true is forgotten. A lifetime ago, she was the vain, ambitious, impossibly charming prima ballerina assoluta of the tsar’s Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Now, as she looks back on her tumultuous life, she can still recall every slight she ever suffered, every conquest she ever made.
Kschessinka’s riveting storytelling soon thrusts us into a world lost to time: that great intersection of the Russian court and the Russian theater. Before the revolution, Kschessinska dominated that world as the greatest dancer of her age. At seventeen, her crisp, scything technique made her a star. So did her romance with the tsarevich Nicholas Romanov, soon to be Nicholas II. It was customary for grand dukes and sons of tsars to draw their mistresses from the ranks of the ballet, but it was not customary for them to fall in love.
The affair could not endure: when Nicholas ascended to the throne as tsar, he was forced to give up his mistress, and Kschessinska turned for consolation to his cousins, two grand dukes with whom she formed an infamous ménage à trois. But when Nicholas’s marriage to Alexandra wavered after she produced girl after girl, he came once again to visit his Little K. As the tsar’s empire—one that once made up a third of the world—began its fatal crumble, Kschessinka’s devotion to the imperial family would be tested in ways she could never have foreseen.
In Adrienne Sharp’s magnificently imagined novel, the last days of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov empire are relived. Through Kschessinska’s memories of her own triumphs and defeats, we witness the stories that changed history: the seething beginnings of revolution, the blindness of the doomed court, the end of a grand, decadent way of life that belonged to the nineteenth century. Based on fact, The True Memoirs of Little K is historical fiction as it’s meant to be written: passionately eventful, crammed with authentic detail, and alive with emotions that resonate still.
The end of the Russian Empire is something that’s started to interest me in recent years; the glamor of days gone by meeting the will of the working class come together and explode creates natural drama. And I also like novels from the points of views of mistresses–while I obviously don’t condone adultery, these women tend to have a more practical approach to love and sex than the average period woman, and they offer an interesting perspective on certain historical periods, being both elite enough to consort with male royalty but still not good enough to take to wife.
I really prefer to quote book blogger reviews when writing The Literary Horizon but, oddly, there are no book blogger reviews of The True Memoirs of Little K at hand. Sarah Nelson, writing for Oprah Magazine, enjoyed Kschessinka’s unreliable narration of her emotions contrasted against her faithful rendering of the time period. Kirkus Book Reviews notes that while enjoyable, it can occasionally feel slow. Just like Russian Winter, then, I think I’ll save this a for a slow day.
The True Memoirs of Little K was published on October 26.