My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
Natalya Goncharova Pushkina, reputed to be the most beautiful Russian woman in her day, has historically received a great deal of blame for the death of her husband Alexander Pushkin, Russia's most famous poet, in a duel fought over her reputation and his honor. The degree to which Natalya was responsible for the duel has long been debated by Pushkin historians. I agree with author Jennifer Laam that, since history has largely been written by men, misbehaving women, or more accurately, women not conforming to their cultural and societal roles are treated badly in historical accounts.
I have to admit that I found this book tough going in passages. The first person narrative choice (Natalya's voice) just did not seem to be the best fit, in my opinion. I am sure the choice was made to try to invest the readers in the heroine's viewpoint and her world, but for me, it didn't work. What I struggled with in this book is the fact that the first person narrator often seemed to be reflecting on observations more suited to an older, omniscient third-person narrator, stripping the voice of authenticity from a character who, though very bright, is only sixteen years old at the start of the book. (Admittedly, often counted as a young adult in that age.) The reader definitely cares about the lives of Natalia and Alexander but I felt that a deeper exploration of the relationship and its obvious downfalls (the societal "burden" of her beauty and vivacity, his reactions to it) might have been better explored in third-person narration. Nevertheless, here we are.
This book seeks to tell Natalya's side of history and that it does. Laam has definitely sought to exculpate Natalya from direct responsibility for Pushkin's death and makes a good case for societal views of women being responsible for Natalya's loss and Pushkin's death. While expected to be vivacious when young and unmarried, the more sober role of married women with children in this historical period often pushed even women in the upper classes to keep their sparkle and light under a proverbial bushel. Natalya attracted much attention, and not just from her devoted husband. An insult at the hands of her besotted brother-in-law results in a duel defending her reputation and her husband's honor. The duel, as all who know of Pushkin's history, cut short his life at the young age of 37. The agonizing last two days of Pushkin's life are given searing spotlight here. As a famous beauty who tried to revel in the expectations of women of her era, even as they chafed, Natalya has been called vain, cold, selfish and many, many worse things. Since Larisa Cherkashina's 2012 biography Natalya Goncharova, which portrays another side to her character thanks in part drawing on her letters and writings, has still not made its way into English translation, this book, though a novel, stands as one of the few English language defenses of Natalya's character. Laam, who has written other novels dealing with Russian history clearly loves her subjects. I just wish editorial guidance had steered this to a different narrative angle.
Natalia Goncharova Pushkina, 1830's and artist unknown
Natalya Goncharova Pushkina, 1843, by Vladimir Hau
Painted a year before her return to society and remarriage
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