Friday, January 20, 2012

Espionage and the Ballerina*

   This afternoon, in the bright January sun and with that great emotional conflict I always feel at the end of a really special read,  I finished one of the richest and most view-widening books I have ever had the pleasure of opening. 

   The True Memoirs of Little K penned by Adrienne Sharp is a glimmering piece of historical fiction set during pre-Soviet Russia and told from the perspective of, as a narration by, in fact, a Prima ballerina named Mathilde Kschessinska.

Holy smokes, you guys, this was a wonderful book!
Read this book. Read it in a cold month,
when you can brew yourself many pots of tea.
And read it while wearing as much perfume
and as many strands of pearls as you wish.
Do you own a fur jacket?
Wear that too.

Okay, back to a proper review...

   I was gifted this novel again by our beloved Julia, and I have once again discovered an author worth following. Ms. Sharp can count on future purchases from me.

Isn't she beautiful? 
In addition to being a novelist of this and other books including 
White Swan, Black Swan, Adrienne Sharp  is also a ballerina herself.
And no, the Natalie Portman movie is not connected.

   The story is told as a first person narrative by an aged woman, a woman whose life is not only a fascinating story unto itself; but it runs parallel to a truly remarkable chapter in world history. Kschessinska was a native of Russia during the rule of the Romanov Empire, a child of the ballet, a product and purveyor of passion, and ultimately a victim of the greater picture, though I doubt she would ever use the word victim to describe herself. Her view of events from the most mundane to the vast and global is both maddening and enchanting. 

   Here, I have to admit a great deal of ignorance. Maybe it is my Americanized perspective. Maybe it is the fact that my childhood was back-lit by that unforgettable Reagan-Gorbachev feud. The Iron Curtain of the twentieth century was seemingly effective in closing off my knowledge that anything interesting happened on that continent before Ronald Reagan stopped acting. Yes. Let's just say that.

   Remarking on the reading experience itself, allow me to say that the first little section of the book establishes the speaker's voice which proves to be very natural if a bit long winded. Page after page of compound sentences and unfamiliar (Russian) names and cities was a little daunting, but that first impression quickly evaporates in the warmth of the woman's true voice. Mathilde has all the depth and elegance and color that young women crave but will never attain until their own old age, when they have amassed their own collections of stories and scandals. On a personal note, I imagined Mathilde wore my grandmother's perfume, Youth Dew by Este`e Lauder.

   Beyond style and implication, though, Sharp lays out almost Shakespearean patterns of love, lust, ambition, and politics. How she managed to excavate so much Russian and world history and then distill it into 400 pages of beautifully written prose is far beyond me. Between the love stories and the descriptions of families, wars, and ballets, the reader is teased with mention of names like Rasputin, Lenin, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and of course Czar Nicholas. I think maybe a person's career could be based on the body of knowledge Sharp has managed to weave into the tapestry that became this novel.

   So which imitates which; art to life or life to art? Do we have this answer yet?

   This is a thorough pleasure to read. When Sharp spoke of Siberia, I was chilled to the bone. When she described the great imperial palaces I could hear imaginary echoes against clean marble. When she took me to the ballet, I could almost touch the velvet drapes. And the parental struggles of a mother giving birth to a child who was destined to leave her side, well... that hit so close to home that I read through tears and felt real compassion for this old woman I will never meet.

   The book's emotional scope is great, and its educating potential is impressive. By the way, I did notice some interesting common ground between the life of our ballerina and that of Nitta Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha. Both women were entertainers. Both were bound by custom but complicated by love. Both, with their beauty and charm, held unnerving power over important men and were hated by more proper women. To make that discovery even more intriguing, we learn in this memoir that these two great nations, Russia and Japan, were at war during the time frame in which both fictional women would have lived.

   How's that for exploring an alternate universe?? How I would love to be at the cafe table where Adrienne Sharp and Arthur Golden chat over a cup of coffee, comparing notes and dreaming up new stories.

   Okay, you guys, if I continue writing I will soon be describing and summarizing every single delicious chapter of this book. Please find time to read it for yourself. Borrow mine if you like, remembering that my only condition for sharing books is that you write your name and a brief review on the inside cover.

Record Your Own History.
Learn About Someone Else's.

* P.S.  I borrowed the title for this post from a line in Sharp's novel, which suggested the title for a scandalous book written then about our main character. I hope neither our ballerina nor our author mind. Imitation, after all, is at its root flattery.. xoxo


  1. Oooh, that sounds like a fantastic book. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn├Ąt available on Kindle, bt have added the book to my Amazon shopping basket next time I get money. Sounds like a great read!

  2. I am looking for a good book. I'll have to check this out. I am fascinated by pre-Soviet Russia.

  3. Ooh, I'd like to borrow it. If it's still available at the Lazy W library when I see you next month, that is. ;-)

    What a beautifully written review, GG. Truth be told, you can make anything sound good.


  4. Sounds fascinating, great review. :)

  5. It does sound pretty worthwhile. I've always been fascinated by this era. I married a WWI Historian. His focus is the U.S. Homefront during that era, but it still sounds like something we'd both like.

  6. Your review is inspiring and it sounds very much like something I would love to read. It is on my to red list.
    Having said that, I reviewed a book called the jewel of Saint Petersburg a while back (, also about Russia. The brilliance of this writer was that I felt I was in Russia, with the gilded rooms and the rich tapestries, everything gold and red... Every time I looked up, I was exceptionally saddened by my very bland room. Don't get me wrong, my house is fine. But after spending some time in Russia, everything becomes drab. I loved the book. It was not a true story, but I devoured it in time I was not suppose to have and I savoured every minute. If you do ever read it, don't read it so close to this one you have just read. I am not sure what the 2 writers will do to each other, but I would love for you to enjoy it for its own value, rather than it being a let down so close, but so different to the other that you thoroughly enjoyed.

    Happy reading!


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