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).