March 10th, 2012
When I was a teenager, I visited Russia for a school trip. It was March break so it was cold, snowy, winter. We spent an afternoon in the Hermitage Museum, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. It was magnificent. It fostered a love of art and museums in me that continues to this day. I don’t consider it travelling unless I’ve visited an artful place.
I have fond memories of Russia, and so I knew the setting alone would endear Eva Stachniuk’s novel to me, even before I started. Sometimes, a book is simply as good as its storytelling: frank, honest, compelling, and that’s exactly the case with The Winter Palace. The book opens with a confession, its narrator, Barbara (“Varvara”), is a “tongue,” a spy in the Russian court. First, she works for the Empress, Elizabeth, and then for the Grand Duchess of all the Russias, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, who later becomes Catherine the Great. (more…)
January 30th, 2010
As I’ve been, well, telling just about anyone who’ll listen, I’ve had a whopper of a cold since last weekend. I abandoned my Reading Nonfiction for January for a few days only because my head, eyes and nose hurt so much it was impossible to concentrate on the written word. However, I did manage to finish Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright.
When the novel opens, the Kellaway family, after suffering through the tragedy of the death of a son, move from the country to bustling London. Tom, a chair maker, his wife, daughter and son, Jem, eventually settle in Lambeth near Astley’s Circus, and next door to William Blake. The other prominent family (of scallywags) includes Maggie Butterflield, her elder brother Charlie, and their parents. Their lives intersect with one another over the course of the novel, both because they’re neighbours, but also through the burgeoning relationship between Maggie and Jem.
Life in London isn’t easy at first for the Kellaways. Jem’s mother Anne, at first, stands at the window watching the fine dresses and hats wander by, afraid to conquer the streets on her own. But when their patron (of sorts), Mr. Astley, sends them tickets to the circus, her life is transformed. Thomas and Jem start to work for Astley (who has a scoundrel of a son) as carpenters and soon everyone’s smitten with London life, in a way.
But the good tidings can’t last, and events put pressure on both families. Whether it’s the shock of what Maggie did in Cut-Throat Lane or Jem’s sister’s disasterous love affairs, soon personal issues send the Butterfields and the Kellaways reeling. Set against the fiery London just before and after the start of the French Revolution, it’s interesting to see how history and famous people (William Blake) intersect with the presumably “real” everyday people who would have lived during 1792. While I’ve yet to read a novel by Tracy Chevalier that captures the emotional resonance and lasting power of Girl with a Pearl Earring, I totally enjoyed Burning Bright. It’s very good historical fiction and it really was just what I needed last week.