The heroine, Inna Feldman, is a sympathetic figure, at least to start. Alarmed by the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in Kiev, and having nowhere else to go after the distant cousins with whom she lived flee the country, Inna boards a train to St. Petersburg with stolen papers. She plans to take refuge with Yasha Kagan, her relatives’ son, whom she’s never met.
En route, she meets up with a kind peasant who knows the capital city and guides her to her destination. It’s not difficult to guess the identity of “Father Grigori” – Rasputin has a way of inserting himself into historical novels of the period – but his is a different depiction than the usual, and his transformation over time fits the themes Bennett aims to convey.
Taken in by the boisterous Leman family of violin-makers, Yasha’s landlords and employers, Inna finds a tentative home in St. Petersburg. Attracted to Yasha despite his strong socialist leanings and hot-and-cold attitude towards her, Inna also feels drawn to Horace Wallick, an Englishman twice her age who crafts elaborate Faberge eggs and has members of the Russian nobility as customers. Some of the decisions Inna makes with regard to her two suitors won’t endear her to readers, and may discourage further reading through the novel’s long middle section, but her full character arc proves rewarding to follow in the end.
In this literary novel, expressive symbolism is found in minute details. One scene in which Yasha aims to restore Inna’s pride in her Jewish heritage through his violin, “trying to play away her fear,” is deeply moving in its insight – as is her reaction. Many aspects of life in revolutionary Russia turn out differently than its people intend.
Bennett puts her extensive knowledge of the place and period (she lived in Russia for seven years and is fluent in the language) to excellent use in her tale of ordinary people altered by treacherous, uncontrollable circumstances and discovering what matters most to them.
Midnight in St. Petersburg is published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press this month ($25.99, hb, 371pp, plus an informative author's afterword explaining Bennett's connection to the material; Horace Wallick was a relative). Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.
Update, 2/6/16: The giveaway has closed; it was one of my more popular contests! Congratulations to Brett C., and thanks to all who entered.