Who Is to Blame? A Russian Riddle by Jane Marlow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Ask me what I know about Russian history, and my answer would be, “Um…Anastasia?” But I adore good historical fiction (“good” meaning “not rapey romance”), so when I saw this available as an Advance Review Copy, my reply was, “Gimme!” My thanks to Net Galley, Greenleaf Book Group, and the author for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.
Bookshelves: advance-review, historical-fiction, love-story-not-a-romance, multiple-povs, mother-russia
I was expecting, and was gratified to get, a kind-of Downton Abbey, Russian style. “Upstairs” in the manor house we have the Count and his family and “downstairs,” or on the Petrovo estate, we have the serfs who work the land. There is a stark contrast between spoiled-little-rich-brat Anton Maximov and the peasant Elizaveta Anafrev, horribly oppressed by virtue of being both a serf and a woman. Using this counterpoint and alternating pov’s, the book explores the symbiotic relationship between the haves and the have-nots, a relationship perhaps not truly seen for what it was until after Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. It was intriguing to see the same attitude that applied to enslavement of blacks in America, that the wealthy landowners were doing their peasants a favor by taking basic care of them and giving them honest work to do. Some things are the same everywhere you go, I guess.
This was almost a 4-star read, which is the highest I generally award. (It’s not that I’m stingy, but 5 stars are reserved for the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird or The Handmaid’s Tale or my all-time favorite comfort book, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I’ve read so many times it’s almost memorized. I do not hand out 5 stars willy-nilly.) I reserved that fourth star because of the writing, which was competent enough but uninspired and wooden at times. Lots of telling as opposed to showing. The character development was there, but it was exactly like someone telling me a story about these people, instead of me feeling like the characters themselves were right there on the pages, talking directly to me. I also would have liked it if the emancipation and the subsequent ripple effect on both the upper and lower classes had been gone into more deeply. The title asks the question, but the book really doesn’t.
Still and all, my only real beef was with the repeated use of the word flaccid–three times, and never applied to a penis. That’s one of those words I just really dislike for no real reason, like chuckle and trot and mucus. It’s a perfectly valid word and it’s author’s choice, but I think it’s an icky word.
The story was absorbing and kept me turning the pages. Each chapter opens with a riddle–a lot of them being nice double entendres which I love because of course my mind goes there. Big kudos for a historical fiction story without my two big turnoffs: Saccharine or rapey romance, and contextual errors, which were both happily absent. There are a couple of love-story lines, well done without being sappy. I’m no historian so it drives me bonkers when a book contains glaring contextual errors even I can catch, such as the showers in 1920’s New York tenements in a book I threw across the room several months ago. None of those here! Marlow really seems to know the culture and the period and her research seems to be exceptional. The story is brim-full of little details of dress, food, customs, folklore, all the things that bring history alive, deftly incorporated without relying on them solely to convey the sense of the past. I learned a few things, including the important role distilling vodka played in the lives and fortunes of Russia’s people.
The upshot: An entertaining read with a satisfying ending. The way is clear for a sequel, which I will definitely read. And there is an Anastasia, so–bonus!
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