Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lost Roses is the story of three women, Eliza Ferriday (a real-life person), Sofia Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat and cousin to Czar Nicholas II, and Varinka, a Russian peasant who has made a bargain with the/a devil, in order to keep a roof over her, and her mother's, heads and food on their table. Eliza and Sofia become friends, and after Eliza travels to St. Petersburg, they correspond for years about their lives and families. When the letters stop at the height of WWI and the inception of the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, Eliza fears the worst for her dear friend and goes to great lengths to try to find out if she has escaped. Meanwhile, Varinka, who works for Sofia's family, cares for Sofia's son Max and manages to safeguard him when the unthinkable begins to unfold on the family's estate.
One of the richest themes of this book is the mother-child dynamic. We see Eliza struggle as a widow to maintain her relationship with her angry, mourning daughter Caroline (heroine of the author's first book, Lilac Girls), and we have Sofia's strained relationship with her stepmother and loving relationship with her son, Max, and sister Luba. Varinka's parentified relationship with her mother, who is ill and in the dark about the sacrifices Varinka has made to safeguard her, is poignant. But Varinka also plays mother to Max in a complex way that has the reader questioning whether what she feels is genuinely love or whether he is merely an objectified, idealized child. Her complicated relationship with Taras comes with a potent twist at the end that explains a mystery that made the relationship seemed impossibly contrived, due to its apparent boundaries, earlier in the book.
I also found that the plight of the White Russian emigrées in New York and Connecticut was fascinating and well portrayed. These women were aristocrats, and yet their presence as displaced persons was about as welcome as that which we presently see with Hispanic or Middle Eastern refugees. In modern America, we tend to forget how unwelcome the Irish, Italian and Russian immigrants were in the early 20th Century. Regardless of their social standing and pedigree, our melting pot country has always frequently been unwelcoming to those seeking sanctuary. As Kelly shows us, the threat to White Russians living in Europe was quite real, as the Bolsheviks were willing to go to great lengths to preserve their status quo against any potential Romanov heirs. America, an ocean apart from Russia and Europe, provided a greater measure of safety and a chance to rebuild a life with dignity to those who escaped the Russian Revolution. Sound familiar?
This book that was so much more affecting than I thought it would be. For anyone who has enjoyed historical fiction about the Romanovs, or looking for a quality book club selection, this is an excellent choice. I ruminated on empathizing with but disliking vulnerable peasants, and on the obliviousness of the Russian aristocrats even after they clearly know the history of the French Revolution. ("That could never happen here...") The aristocracy's blind trust of the impenetrability of their position is perfectly captured in the Streshnayva family, even as the cruelty of their fate, a real fate met by many, is unjustifiable.
I read Lost Roses during the slowly moving trainwreck that was my move across the country in April, and because I fell so far behind in reviews, I got a chance to listen to the fabulous audiobook. In fact, the audiobook is so good that I restarted the novel from the beginning, to hear the vibrant performances of the full book.
I will be reviewing Lilac Girls, next month, along with some background material for Caroline/Carolyn Ferriday's real-life story. And Martha Hall Kelly reportedly has an even earlier prequel in the works, as we step back further in time to learn more about Eliza's mother.
I received a paper review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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