Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book review: The Lost Season of Love and Snow by Jennifer Laam, set in imperial Russia

Natalya Goncharova, Alexander Pushkin’s young wife, didn’t hold the best reputation among her contemporaries, whose opinions about her flirtatious behavior and rumored infidelities have followed her over the last two centuries. After all, Pushkin died after fighting a duel to defend her honor, and she was blamed for this great loss to the Russian literary world.

However, basing her new historical novel on current research into Natalya’s life and own writings, Jennifer Laam makes a strong case that her name was unjustly blackened.

Set amid the elegant balls and country gardens of 1820s-1830s Russia, The Lost Season of Love and Snow also proves to be unexpectedly relevant to our own time, as women address issues of consent within relationships, deal with “imposter syndrome,” and struggle to have their voices heard.

Only sixteen when they meet at a dance master’s ball in Moscow in 1828, naïve, sheltered Natalya is pleased but a bit flustered after learning she’s caught the interest of her favorite poet, and his kindness and intensity attract her in turn. The scenes detailing their courtship – which proceeds despite her mother’s initial disapproval – form the novel’s slowest section, yet are elegantly rendered. As the wife of a prominent man, Natalya is expected to follow the latest fashions and participate in the coquetry that pervades Tsar Nicholas’s court. Pushkin was known to be sympathetic to the Decembrist revolutionaries, and Natalya realizes she must avoid offending the Tsar at all costs. Laam depicts the difficult path Natalya must tread, graciously deflecting his advances while remaining active in court life.

Her own literary pursuits brushed aside, she grows progressively more comfortable with her beauty and the power it holds. Although she makes the occasional mistake, she never betrays her husband, with whom she has four children, and continues to attract unwanted attention. Combined with her husband’s stubbornness and jealousy, this creates a situation that spins far out of her control. The final scenes between Alexander and Natalya are wrenching to read, even knowing the outcome at the start. (The novel offers a good example of an effective prologue.)

With its focus on interpersonal dynamics and the glamour of court life rather than Russian literary culture, the novel feels slighter than it could have been; more emphasis on Pushkin’s own poems about Natalya, for instance, would have heightened the emotional intensity and added character depth. Still, the novel works well as an introduction to their tragic love story, and to a woman who fought to assert control over her life. It must have been conceptualized and written well before the recent #metoo movement, although it can certainly be read and appreciated with these revelations in mind.

Jennifer Laam's The Lost Season of Love and Snow was published by St. Martin's Griffin this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for the review. The book is new to me.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Hope you might be able to find a copy.

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  2. Isn't it amazing how the stuff that happened two centuries ago can be entirely relevant today? Then I need to ask--how has this attitude toward women lasted so darned LONG?

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    1. A very good question. Progress is made awfully slowly.

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  3. There seems to be a literary fad around writing about the women behind famous men. It is starting seem overdone, however many have been fascinating portraits of couples and their time. This one sounds interes.

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    1. It's definitely true about the trend you mention. Nancy Horan's Loving Frank was one of the early trendsetters. There haven't been many set in Russia, so this one at least has an original subject.

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