Friday, December 10, 2010

Book review: The True Memoirs of Little K, by Adrienne Sharp

How much room is there for truth in a fictional memoir with an unreliable narrator? The answer to this complex question sits at the heart of Adrienne Sharp's provocative new novel. The True Memoirs of Little K is written as a first-person, no-holds-barred account of the life of Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II. In 1971, as a longtime émigrée living in Paris, Mathilde records her story for posterity, proving that even at age ninety-nine she can still command an audience.

The younger daughter of a Polish Catholic family of dancers in St. Petersburg, young Mathilde grows up knowing her ticket to success, artistically and personally, hinges on finding a rich nobleman to be her patron. It becomes her great fortune to attract, at seventeen, the most eligible bachelor of all, the handsome tsarevich.  “Niki" is a shy young man who needs persuading, at first, to take her to his bed.

Several years later, after he sets her aside to marry the woman he's loved since childhood, Alix of Hesse, “Mala” takes up with two of his cousins, the Grand Dukes Sergei and Andrei. She remains mostly faithful to both until – in this tale, if not in history – Niki seeks her out again, disappointed after Alix produces her fourth daughter in a row. The parentage of Mathilde's son, Vova, remains a mystery to this day.

Tsarist Russia honors its artists “with ceremony and treasure,” she writes, and the novel overflows with vivid portraits of each, from glittering receptions following performances to the delicate Fabergé eggs presented to the tsar. Most captivating are her descriptions of the politics of ballet, both on the Maryinsky Stage and off. Mathilde lights up every scene she's in, a statement that would no doubt please her, but the narrative loses that spark of immediacy when she digresses at length about more distant events.

A dancer whose talent is matched (and more) by her high opinion of herself, Mathilde resorts to childish pranks and more devious schemes when she fails to get her way. But with time and hard-won experience comes wisdom. What feels almost intolerably arrogant in a young, ambitious diva becomes admirable and even charming in an aging retiree who, as the Russian empire crumbles during the Bolshevik Revolution, risks everything she has left for the sake of a loved one.

Adrienne Sharp sticks to the format of an imagined memoir; the text is pure narrative, with conversations related only in brief through Mathilde’s assured voice. (This takes some getting used to, as does the woman herself.)  However, in the hidden spaces between her words, "Little K" unwittingly shows as much as she tells. The tender romance of Nicholas and Alexandra plays out behind her jealous rages, as does the story – actually two separate stories – of a mother’s fierce, protective love for her only son.

The real Mathilde Kschessinska wrote her own autobiography in 1960 (Dancing in Petersburg), a version our narrator calls “full of fiction and lies.”  In exploring the details of her life story, the author stimulates discussion about what people set down as their legacy, and why. Though reading Little K's “true memoirs” doesn't require prior knowledge of its subject, those more familiar with her life may take away from it a deeper message than those who haven't. The triumphant ending is a stirring tribute to a bygone age and a determined woman who knew, above all, how to survive.

The True Memoirs of Little K was published in November by Farrar Straus & Giroux ($25.00, 378pp, hardbound).


  1. It sounds as if the story is a lot more colourful than the cover! I should have realised that, knowing it involves the world of ballet.

    You use the word "provocative" to describe the novel. Are you referring to the narrator's personality and take on people or events, or the author's interpretation of Mathilde Kschessinska, or perhaps something else?

    In any case, Sarah, your review has caused me to restore The True Memoirs of Little K to my December TBB list!

  2. Danielle, I agree - the cover isn't very exciting! I kept wishing there was more personality to it; seeing that the novel centers on Mathilde, it would have been nice if she had a stronger presence there. On the other hand, it's literary fiction, so I can see why the typical historical novel cover (part of a woman's face or figure) wouldn't exactly fit either.

    I found it provocative in the sense that the author takes some controversial leaps in describing Mathilde's actions. Rumors and innuendo become reported fact. (The author's note lays all of this out.) They run counter to her documented life story in some cases, and I know some readers have a low tolerance for this. However, after reading it, I have a much better understanding about why this is. It's a novel that makes you think!

  3. It's a novel that makes you think

    That is my favourite kind :-) Thank you for the explanation. As I think you know by now, I am one of those readers who "have a low tolerance" for tampering with facts (or such information as is believed to be true), but there is always the splendidly outrageous exception... Exaggeration is sometimes simply a way of showing truth in a different or unexpected light.

  4. I normally fall into that group, too. The key for me in appreciating this book (and some of the narrator's claims do get pretty outrageous!) was in realizing that it's not meant to be standard biographical fiction... it has a different sort of point to make.

  5. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Re the cover - it looks a lot like that for CITY OF SILVER by Anamaria Alfieri (good book, BTW), but different publishers. I seem to remember other covers like this as well but darned if I can remember the titles.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  6. You're right! It does have the same style cover. City of Silver didn't say "grab me" either, but I loved the book.

  7. I have to say I wasn't fond of this book. It was an OK read, but long winded at time.