Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow
Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > Articles by: Margaret

The Miniaturist


By Jessie Burton

Harper Collins, Ecco Paperback Edition, 2015

Sometimes you read a debut novel and you think, this simply cannot be the work of a first-time author. The originality of the subject matter, the world building, and the believable growth of the characters are all marks of a very experienced writer. Yet all these characterize this book by English writer Jessie Burton.

No wonder it was a New York Times best-seller.

In the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is a “cabinet house” or large dollhouse, once owned by a woman name Petronella Oortman, who lived in the seventeenth century. As lovers of this historical period know, the late 1600’s was the apogee of the United Provinces of the Netherland’s influence in the world. The merchants of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, brought wealth and fame to Holland. The comfortable lifestyle of its wealthy and middle classes have been conveyed to us through the paintings of the Dutch masters, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Judith Leyster and others.

In The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton imagines the life of Petronella, “Nella”, the bride of an Amsterdam merchant named Johannes Brandt. He gave the cabinet to his wife as a wedding gift. In Burton’s telling, the cabinet’s maker is not only an artistic virtuoso, but prescient as well. The tiny items created to be set inside the cabinet include uncanny likenesses of the house’s human and animal inhabitants. They also offer jarring portents of future events. Nella’s disturbance at these weird gifts mirrors her growing unease at secrets she fears are held by her husband and his sister, Marin.

As Nella uncovers the truth about the family she has married into, she grows in maturity and compassion. Burton’s skill in portraying this is remarkable. As the story progresses we learn much about the social repression that accompanied the commercial success of Calvinist Holland. At the same time, the quasi-democratic values held by the Dutch, their belief in capitalism rather than a class system based on aristocracy, and their emphasis on domestic cleanliness, order and financial security make this era more accessible to us than other periods of history.

When we look back at history, we can only imagine what it was like to live then and there. The novelist’s job is to bring the past to life. Burton has taken liberties in that the real Petronella Oortman was a wealthy widow by the time she married merchant Johannes Brandt, while in the book Nella is a naïve eighteen-year- old, and the fate of Brandt propels the book’s plot. Burton has taken an historical person and surrounded her with a dose of magic, both literally, as told in this story, and metaphorically, as in the skill of her writing.

This is a wonderful book.

The All-Americans

The All-Americans
By Angela Farley

Amazon Digital Services, 2017

We live in an age of terrorism. We live in an age of gun violence. When the two are combined on American soil, with innocent hostages slated for execution, our sense of safety unravels.

In this gripping story, twelve random strangers are kidnapped in movie theatres across the United States. They are imprisoned by operatives intent on punishing Americans for the violence they’ve inflicted in other parts of the world during the war on terror. Oddly, the terrorists themselves are for the most part not foreigners, but mercenaries hired to execute the victims one by one. And, foiling their plan to kill all-Americans, the victims are not all native-born citizens of the United States. This is the first twist this author introduces to her plot. It is a telling one, because it indicates the real nature of our diverse society. What truly, does it mean to be an American, she suggests. As the book progresses, it becomes a fascinating study of the relationships that develop between some of the captives and their captors. If the captor can begin to see his victim as a human being, then there is a possibility of hope. But that is not all. The captive too, can shape the narrative if given time to think, observe, and above all, have someone else to live for.

I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Farley when she shared an author event with me at Orinda Books, California, on October 21. She is a nurse by profession, and her knowledge of physiology gives her story a lot of credibility as she describes the reactions of the victims to their predicament. Angela also remarked during her reading of passages from The All-Americans that she reflected on her time in the Emergency Room. Patients would come in with life-altering illnesses or injuries, all of them shocked to find themselves in this situation. Some would fight for their lives and some would give up. The will to live is what enables some victims of threatened death to survive. In another twist on the expected, Angela Farley shows us that this will can change throughout the ordeal; a chance to live given up one moment may not be the end, and conversely, a determination to survive may be snuffed out by a captor’s quick trigger.

Angela Farley has written a movie-worthy thriller, as much a psychological study of captives and captors as an action-filled story. This book kept me up for hours as I read it in a single sitting.

The Myth of You and Me

By Leah Stewart
Broadway Books, 2006

As the novels of Elena Ferrante prove, books about the friendships of girls are having a moment. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is in realist mode, a realism so acute that people have obsessed about Ferrante’s true identity, as if to out her as a memoirist rather than a novelist.

What is the role of one’s own experience in fiction, and what comes from tapping into a universal subconscious or semi-conscious experience? Ah, the slippery mind and even more slippery memory! Memories shape our present, and unconscious motivations formed from memories push us in ways we are not aware of. The past and the present weave together, all acting on us at the same time. Ferrante’s characters have four complete novels in which to complete their psychological tasks based on the events of their childhoods. So, the novelist who sets herself the task of unpacking the mystery of motivation in one book has my sympathy.

A dream-like quality of past and present interacting infuses The Myth of You and Me.
Leah Stewart begins her story eight years after Sonia (you) and Cameron (me) have ended their girlhood friendship. The book moves back in forth in time, showing how the choices each of these girls made is due to her own need for self-affirmation in the face of parental disapproval or indifference. As I read Leah Stewart’s author bio after I read this book I realized that she’s lived in all the places she writes about, and had the peripatetic childhood of her protagonist. But this is fiction, and the setting was, I felt, a sideshow to the plot. Which concerns a power dynamic between two very different girls, a dynamic that fuels their subsequent lives. As close as they are, they, like everyone else, make choices they can’t fully explain.

I won’t be a spoiler, because this story is complicated. But the truth is that the friendships
of girls are intense, way more intense than male friendships. In this hyper-sexualized age, that
closeness may be misunderstood. I’d say that when girls undergo together the utter sea-change of puberty their relationship can be as close as any known to humans. It’s a mental communion in which best friends can say absolutely anything to each other. Sometimes, of course, those spoken words can be hurtful. This intimacy between teenage best friends cannot be replicated in later life. It has to start young, and if we’re lucky, can continue for the rest of our lives. The mysteries of changing bodies, the secrets, the boyfriends, the sometimes inexplicable choice of life partners, the tests all of us endure as we grow up, all become tolerable because we have a friend to tell. When a friend does something unforgivably hurtful to the other and the relationship ends, that can haunt a girl’s future.

Leah Stewart, in her afterword to the book, speaks of writing it as she awaited the birth of
her child. So she is still close in time to the memory of her bestie. I am an older woman, and I
felt tears rising as I ended this book. I have lost too many friends in the past few years. Now, my dear friend, whom I have known since I was thirteen, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I cannot imagine life without her. Everything we’ve shared, all the secrets and the longings and
the disappointments and the triumphs – who else will be able to remember these? All those
things will happen to other girls as they grow up, but our story will be gone. I can only take
comfort from the fact that these close relationships will continue for those to come after us.

Leah Stewart has hit upon a universal truth in this story. She’s written several more books
and I intend to read them.

The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
First Vintage International Edition, 1995

Mrs. Bennet, meet Sachiko Makioka!

The Makioka Sisters, a twentieth century Japanese classic by Junichiro Tanizaki, came to my attention through a literary blog I follow, Whispering Gums. I’m so glad to have read it.

As in Jane Austen’s books, this story takes place in a time of pending and actual war, yet focuses on domestic life. Just as Jane Austen is criticized by the misguided for writing books in which nothing much happens, this story meanders through the life of the four Makioka sisters in the years 1938 to 1941, with the overarching theme being the need for a woman to find a husband. As in Austen’s works, the author critiques prevailing social mores. Perhaps even surpassing Austen in its leisurely and detailed scene-setting, Tanizaki’s final chapters deliver a quiet bombshell.

Sachiko Makioka and her older sister Tsuruko are married with children. The two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are single. It is the family’s responsibility to get Yukiko safely wedded. For until the third sister is married, the fourth must wait.

Marriages were arranged at that time in Japan. The families of eligible young women would be approached by intermediaries suggesting a suitable spouse. After “investigations” by the families on both sides, a meeting would be arranged. This was often a dinner party. The idea was to allow the potential couple to meet in a chaperoned setting but in an enjoyable and relaxed way, so that conversation could flow. Decisions could be made in a very short time following this “miai,” with little time for the couple to really get to know each other.

Junichiro is a master of dialogue, particularly of the light, bantering, dinner party kind. Gentle jokes from a foreign culture and a different century must be hard to get across, but translator Edward G. Seidensticker does a marvelous job of this.

When the story starts, Yukiko has a history of failure in the marriage market. While her sister Taeko is shockingly independent, trying to support herself through making dolls and later through learning to be a seamstress, Yukiko is extraordinarily passive. Now in her thirties, she is so extremely shy she cannot make conversation. Yet, in a response that is sadly familiar today, Sachiko worries that Yukiko’s problem must be a physical imperfection. The only possible blemish is a transitory brown spot above Yukiko’s eye, and Sachiko obsesses about this – allowing others to define a woman’s attractiveness. For Yukiko’s part, she seems happy enough in her role of unpaid baby-sitter and nurse for her sisters’ children.

A sub-text of this story is how much harder it is for women with many children, like Tsuruko, than for women with one child, like Sachiko. Yet this theme is very much linked to the main problem of the novel, which deals with the eligibility issues of the younger sisters. Tsuruko and her husband and six children have moved to Tokyo, where they must cope with an expensive big city lifestyle, finding it very difficult. Sachiko, on the other hand, still lives in Osaka, where everything is familiar. Sachiko is happily married to the thoughtful Teinosuke, one of the most attractive characters in the novel. She spends her days practicing calligraphy, goes to the beauty parlor, sees a lot of movies, often dines out. It is a very recognizable life to us, and yet aspects of it are ritualized and slow to change. There are some wonderful scenes of excursions to see cherry blossoms and fireflies, in which certain clothes are worn, and we see the expectation that year after year, elaborate services, with entertainment and catering, must be provided to honor the anniversary of parents’ deaths.

Yet war is coming, and as the novel progresses, the once comfortable Makioka household becomes depleted of its fine wines and the older sister, Tsuruko becomes more and more desperate for the financial burden of the younger sisters to be lifted by their marriages.

Sachiko, though, is the classic unreliable narrator. She is half aware that it suits her very well to have Yukiko available to help her with her daughter, Etsuko. She is much more worried about Taeko, who has had undesirable relationships with men, but cannot marry until Yukiko does. Taeko’s reputation is such that it sullies Yukiko’s by association, and eventually the family takes action, which only makes matters worse. Sachiko’s frantic yet indecisive behavior towards the naughty Taeko reminds one of the Bennets’ despair about Lydia in Pride and Prejudice.

This novel builds slowly, showing us a world which is both modern and stultified. It protected women, but also bound them in convention. Symbolically, the female characters wear Western clothes when they want to be comfortable, but in situations like the marriage negotiations, sit stiff and uncomfortable in rigid Japanese dress. Both the old-fashioned, obedient Yukiko and the independent Taeko are caught in impossible positions.

Junichiro Tanizaki, 1886-1965, lived through the great upheaval of the Second World War. Without making an overtly political point, Tanizaki shows the beauty and appeal of traditional Japanese culture, and its dark side, in which non-conformity is punished severely. A moral failure or just an inability to think independently? That’s for the reader to decide.

Sophie and the Sibyl


By Patricia Duncker

Bloomsbury, 2015

It is a bit daunting to start a novel about a famous novelist by an academic who specializes in teaching the Great Works of the famous novelist to generations of undergraduates.

Will it be tendentious, pedantic, or insist on a post-modern reading of a world view shared by the famous novelist and her readers a hundred and fifty years ago? These were my thoughts as I began Sophie and the Sibyl. The Sibyl is George Eliot. Sophie is a fictional countess, young, beautiful, energetic, the eldest daughter of loving, lenient and wealthy parents.

Well aware of her potential reader’s apprehension, Duncker addresses them in her book, taking little omniscient pauses throughout the narrative to explain, like a Greek chorus. The tone is playful, amused, learned. Despite this, her flawed characters are fully realized and original.

Like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot took a male pen-name in order to get published. She also “lived in sin” with a married man, G.H Lewes, and took his name. Yet her identity was well known to the English intelligentsia, which nevertheless snubbed the great author and her lover for this sexual crime. The Lewes found a better reception in Germany, where her German publisher, Duncker und Duncker (no relation of the author) was reaping handsome profits from her work.

In the story, Wolfgang Duncker, heir and now manager of the publishing house, has been asked by his father’s oldest friend, Count von Hahn, to persuade Wolfgang’s younger brother, Max, to seek the hand of the count’s rambunctious daughter, Sophie. Max and Sophie had been childhood friends, but Max’s army training has kept them apart for a couple of years. In the meantime, Sophie has blossomed from child to spirited and beautiful young woman. Meeting her again, Max is captivated and a little afraid.

Max is also captivated and a little afraid of the Sibyl. Her astonishing intellect, coupled with her “wonderful” eyes, pair with a remarkably unattractive face, her jaw “massive”, her teeth like “tusks. Sophie, too, is a huge fan of George Eliot, desperate to meet “Mrs. Lewes” and forbidden to do so for the conventional reasons.

So begins a strange menage a trois, with the Sibyl at the center. Duncker, who knows Eliot’s novels inside out, is at pains to point out that Lewes was a hypocrite. Her novels punish wayward women who want their own way. As a counterpoint Duncker has created Sophie, who not only gets what she wants, but berates Lewes for never letting women win in her books.

But we can only write what we know, and we cannot anticipate the world-view of future generations. Eliot was ostracized for her unconventional love life. She made a fortune, yet was not able to parlay that into anything other than being able to afford a nice house and to travel with Lewes when things got too difficult for them in England. She could not vote, she could even use her real name to make her voice heard on the social issues she appeared to care about.

For all that, in this novel, the character of Lewes/Eliot is the least understandable. Perhaps that is because she was a real person, and real people behave inconsistently at times. The others characters, the befuddled and adorable Max and the extraordinary and delightful Sophie are wonderful fictional creations.

Interestingly, I read a review of this book which stated that it was hard to empathize with Sophie, an “immensely privileged heroine.”

Really? Perhaps this remark proves Duncker’s not-so-subtle point. In our own day, as in Eliot’s, women are still punished for acting as freely, and with entitlement, as men do.

Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving

By Kevin West
Alfred Knopf, 2013

I’m one of those people who read cookbooks for pleasure. I picked this one up from our local library because I was seeking directions for making jam, and had misplaced my Ball’s Blue Book.

Little did I realize until I opened the book that it would be a visual treat with gorgeous photographs, written by someone who knows his way around the keyboard, and with apt poetic snippets to start each chapter.

Kevin West alludes to his Southern heritage in this book, but he now lives in Los Angeles. Blessed with a temperate climate, denizens of his city could find fresh food any time of the season, but West’s aim is to teach us how to use up all that excess. Even if the weather is mild all year, seasons still turn; warm and foggy, hot and dry, damp and even frosty in the winter.
Produce there may be, but fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and home gardens must be picked and preserved at their freshest to allow the full flavor to be savored at a later time.

Like me, West has taken his state’s university cooperative extension course on how to garden in his particular climate. In true master gardener fashion, he has included a very helpful guide to the peak seasons for fruits and vegetables in various regions of the United States. He’s also a certified Master Food Preserver. The recipes are beautiful. They work.

I kept thinking about time as I read this book. The practice of “putting up” food safely in sterilized jars is about three hundred years old. Under West’s guidance, it takes a leisurely hour or two to preserve a flat of strawberries. Time seems so short in our crowded lives, and time taken to home canning could be considered wasteful to some. Yet it keeps rhythm with our ancient need to honor the earth and what comes from it to sustain us. West begins his book with a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, translated by the American poet David Ferry. In our querulous twenty-first century, it speaks to us still.

0 greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed.

The Summer Guest

By Alison Anderson
Harper Perennial, 2017

“I’m very nostalgic for the nineteenth century,” says Katya, a character in this absolutely marvelous novel by Alison Anderson.

What she means is she’s nostalgic for the world of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. Charming, brilliant, and a physician as well as a writer, Chekhov darts in and out of the pages of The Summer Guest, candid and yet inaccessible through the barrier of time and language. Not only that. Through these pages he comes across as immensely attractive, and classically unavailable to the women who love him. This story is told in the voices of three women who are obsessed with him. They are Katya, a Russian-born partner with her husband Peter in a failing London publishing firm, Ana, whom they’ve hired to translate a Russian diary Katya and Peter say they have discovered, and the writer of the diary itself. It is by a nineteenth century Russian doctor, Zinaida Mikhailovna Lintvaryov, The Lintvaryov family – real people – rented the guesthouse of their peaceful and prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family in the summers of 1888 and 1889. The sisters were unusual for the time. Their widowed mother, recognizing that the girls were not pretty, encouraged them to become economically self-sufficient. One daughter, Natasha, is a teacher. Elena and Zinaida (Zina) are doctors. Zinaida however, is stricken with a brain tumor. This has rendered her blind, though still able to write. Perhaps it is her blindness and vulnerability that draws Anton Pavlovich Chekhov to her. The two chat daily during the summers. Through their talk the reader understands the meaning of literature, the economic imperative that caused Chekhov to write short stories and plays rather than a novel, the loyalty to family that each of them feels.

Through the diary we get a picture of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, where educated people exchanged ideas that were forward thinking. It’s an idyllic picture of family life and mutual responsibility. It is heartbreaking to think that Russia once had a chance at democracy. This theme is echoed through the book in the voice of Katya, who recalls meeting her husband Peter when he was a student visiting Moscow in the nineteen eighties. He did not understand, she recalls, the constant fear. And Ana, translating the Russian text in 2014, wants to visit the Ukraine and the site of Chekhov’s summer with the Lintevaryovs, but is frightened because of the unrest unfolding in the Crimea.

The contrast between Zinaida’s life as she faces death comforted and surrounded by a loving family, and Ana’s twenty-first century life, untethered by family or romantic attachments, and Katya, trapped by the false promise of capitalism as her business fails during the lingering economic crisis, is thought-provoking. In each case, love is thwarted, too. For Zina, death is on the horizon, for Ana, a divorce has left her rudderless, for Katya a troubled marriage drags her down. For all of them, Chekhov’s words provide a bridge to understanding. In Zina’s case, this is more than metaphor as the writer vividly describes scenes Zina can no longer see.

Fundamentally, this is an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings. Ana, the translator, exemplifies the difficulty of trying to get across in another language what someone from another century felt and said. Katya, the publisher, understands the importance of getting across the author’s words, but faces the practical difficulty of doing so. Zinaida, facing death, mourns her short time on earth. Chekhov, amiable, popular, funny, loyal, speaks of the problem of finding time to write. But all try, so that we, despite our moments of suffering alone, have through literacy, the possibility of empathy. As Ana says toward the end of the book, Was not that the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it had unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it, and above all, felt it?

I really loved this book.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles; The Captured by Scott Zesch

News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
Harper Collins 2016

The Captured
By Scott Zesch
St. Martin’s Press, 2004

“The news of the world” is what Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reads to ranchers and cowboys gathered in the saloons and public halls of the Texas frontier in 1870.

A former Army officer and retired printer, Kidd now collects coins in a paint can to bring tidings from distant lands to the frontiersmen. His readings are selective, as he realizes that people want “not only information, but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.”

And then Kidd is confronted with someone truly mysterious. He is asked to return to her family a ten-year old white girl who had been captured by the Kiowa from her parents’ log cabin some time before. Now she has forgotten her parents, thinks of herself as Native American, and does not want to go home. Kidd accepts this job out of compassion for the girl, and over the 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio he earns her trust as he teaches her English and defends her against predators (human, not animal).

In News of the World, Paulette Jiles gives us a beautifully written elegy on the Texas landscape before it was paved over and developed. She offers us a fascinating story, but also a psychological mystery. How was it that so many of the child captives of the Kiowa, the Comanche and the Apache peoples adapted so fully into their adopted Native American families that they did not want to return?

In her end notes Jiles recommends a book that she used in her research. Published in 2004, Scott Zesch’s book, The Captured, gives us some insights. Zesch is a great nephew of Adolph Korn, who was captured by the Comanche in 1870, eventually returned to his family and never fully adjusted. Zesch considers the psychological condition “the Stockholm Syndrome” in which captives adopt the values of their captors in order to stay alive, later to stay sane. But the most convincing explanation is that for children of frontier settlers, Indian (Zesch uses this term) tribal life was simply more fun. White families at this time in Texas lived in scattered log cabins, with many people crammed into one uncomfortable room. Schools did not exist. Life consisted of one day after the other of work, work, work. And fear of raids on horses and people by the roaming Comanche.

Traumatic as their capture was (because the children taken by the native raiders usually saw their adult relatives and infant siblings killed) the captives were fully adopted into tribal life. The Comanche seemed to have no other purpose in capturing children except to build up the tribe. Boys were trained to be warriors, girls to do work like cleaning the killed buffalo, drying their meat and tanning their hides, and other domestic chores. Compared to white frontier life, though, the freedom experienced by both boys and girls in the Indian camps was considerable. Unlike the unremitting labor they were used to, the children had time to swim and ride horses, to learn to hunt and to fight. For boys this was the fantasy life of the novels they’d never been taught to read. For girls, their adoptive mothers were very loving.

I read The Captured in order to better understand Johanna, the fictional child captive in News of the World. I came to realize the irony of Jiles’ title. The people of the frontier in the 1870s were far from home, trying to tame an unforgiving land. For them, “the news of the world” was the trumpet call of civilization. Globalization was coming to the American West. The news of the world had been hidden from the Native Americans, who were content with the way things were and always had been. The news of the world had enticed settlers to come far from everything they knew. Now they longed for an imagined or concocted world of “civilization” and its comforts. One way or another, the news of the world conquered everything in its path, causing the destruction of a thriving, healthy, thousands-years old way of life. Paulette Jiles’ novel leaves one pondering these thoughts long after the last page is read.

Quick, Grab The Lipstick!

People always ask me about my book’s title, Lipstick on the Strawberry. I came across the idea while researching a caterer’s daily life. My heroine, Camilla, has a catering business. She hires a young woman who is training to be a food stylist. The girl grabs an unripe strawberry, swipes red lipstick across its green surface and snaps a photo. The picture shows a luscious, shiny fruit.

My story involves a family secret hidden under a gloss of respectability. How often does that happen in real life? Even in families with perfectly ordinary lives, there are often stories best left kept from the world.

Camilla is English. The story is set partly in Boston, where I lived for many years, and partly in Cambridge, England, where I’ve spent months at a time. I wanted to capture Camilla’s sense of “in between-ness” as she contemplates whether to stay in the U.S. where business opportunities are better, or to try to reconcile with her estranged family in England. Her romance complicates these decisions.

Cambridge, England, is to my mind one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is the home of one of the world’s oldest universities and of some of the world’s finest minds. So to an ordinary person like myself it can seem intimidating. Camilla feels shut out of this world because unlike her academic family, she struggled at school. All she wants to do is to cook.

I took the above photo of King’s College, Cambridge. I think it illustrates Camilla’s mindset – and as
the book progresses, she becomes more self-accepting.

The Secret Wife

By Gill Paul
Harper Collins Publishing UK 2016

One of the mantras of writing classes is that a story should have a singular topic. “What is this about?” some critique partners cry when faced with a manuscript that struggles to identify its theme.

So when I read on the cover of the Secret Wife that this novel was about the love affair of army captain Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, a daughter of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, and was also about Dmitri’s great-grand- daughter and a crisis in her marriage, I worried a
bit.

I needn’t have. British writer Gill Paul blends these threads together well. If the beginning of the book, an unexpected legacy bequeathed to a protagonist by an unknown great-grandfather, is somewhat clichéd, this story moves quickly to become quite original. A contemporary narrator, Kitty, furious by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, flies to upstate New York to consider what to do next. She’s learned she’s the sole beneficiary of her great-grandfather’s estate and uncovers, literally, his cabin by a lake. Her ancestor was a Russian immigrant and also, she learns, a writer. The second thread of the book is narrated by Dmitri Malama, a Russian nobleman and army officer. Wounded in World War I, he is nursed by Tatiana, the Tsar’s daughter. By 1914, the chaos of war had led the sheltered royal princesses to help in the bloody field hospitals. Despite this, they were imprisoned in 1917 and murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. That’s not a spoiler, it is history. Gill Paul heard that Tatiana had fallen in love with one of her patients, Malama. Her book is a fictionalized version of their relationship.

By the end of the book this reader had deep sympathy for the Romanovs, blinded by their own belief in the divine right of kings to the dire situation of their subjects, and a more nuanced understanding of the book’s contemporary narrator, Kitty. Human frailty, the impossibility for people always to do the right thing or to foresee consequences, and the possibility of enduring love are the underlying themes of both parts of this book. I found it a page-turner. Paul’s descriptions of the royal family’s captivity, the horrors of war, and more benignly, the pleasures of restoring an old cabin by the lake are very well done.

The book makes a timely appearance since next year marks one hundred years since the
Romanovs’ were killed and the Soviet era began.