Monday, July 18, 2011

The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrianne Sharp — 384 pgs

The True Memoirs of Little K: A NovelMathilde Kschessinska is seventeen and just graduating from the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. She comes from a long line of performers and is expected to culminate her career as a prima ballerina on the Russian stage. But Little K, as she comes to be known, has other plans, for she is interested in snagging the affections and protection of tsarevitch Niki, the young man who will one day become Tsar Nicholas II. During this period in history, the ballet ostensibly existed for the pleasure of the royal family, and each ballerina strove to snare a young and handsome protector from one of the royal houses or the upper echelons of the military. But for Little K, only tsarevitch Niki would do. After a brief flirtation, the tsarevitch succumbs to Little K’s wiles and a life-long relationship begins. As their courtship is cemented, Niki uses his sizable influence to secure the best roles and opportunities for Little K. Though this relationship is initially fraught with passion and vigor, soon Niki decides to make the princess Alix his wife, much to Little K’s anger and chagrin. Soon Little K must search for another protector and benefactor while still holding on to her dreams of luring Nicholas back to her bed. But the Russia of this time was not a stable place, and before long Nicholas I has succumbed to illness, leaving the young Niki the tsar of the land. After his betrothal and marriage to Alix, Little K is left in the wings, seemingly forever. But soon the Russian revolution begins and the tsar and his family are in danger from both the common folk and the nobility. Little K soon finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy of giant proportions and back in Niki’s good graces as well. As Russia begins to self-destruct and its leaders are torn from their illustrious positions, Little K must decide how far she will go for love and whom she will protect when her world comes crumbling down around her. In a subtle blend of history and fiction, The True Memoirs of Little K takes its readers into the heart and mind of one very ambitious ballerina and shines a spotlight on the Russia of the past.

I had a lot of mixed feelings while I was reading this book, and I’ll tell you why. First off, I love Russian history and feel like there’s a lot that I don’t know about this particular time, though I am quite familiar with the story of Nicholas, Alexandra, and Rasputin. I also love books that are structured in the style of a memoir but are actually fictional works. The history in this book was clear and cogent, and I learned a lot about the inner machinations of 19th century Russia, which was a real boon for me. What I don’t love is when a protagonist is so egotistical and arrogant that it annoys and irritates, which was the case for Little K herself. It was only towards the end of the book that she showed any humility, and in my opinion, even that bit was marred by her subtle egotism. I grew tired of Little K’s antics and her bragging, which seemed to encompass every area and topic, and while I liked the history of the story, I was much less enamoured of its protagonist.

At the heart of things this book is basically a triple layered story about love, ambition and history, and while it excels in some areas, others are not as magnanimously wrought. What I did enjoy was that Sharp was not afraid to go full throttle with the history, explaining the various coups and their players without dumbing them down for her audience. She had a knack for making the dusty annals of history come alive through her narrative and for focusing tightly on the drama and corruption of that time. Having known only a little bit about what was going on in that time and place, I felt that the knowledge that I gained was substantial and it really grounded me in the atmosphere of 19th century Russia. While reading, I got to see things from every vantage point, which made for a really rich reading experience. Reading about the opulence of the Russian court in its heyday all the way through to its final gasps was enlightening to say the least, and gave me a fresh perspective on things I’ve long heard about but never delved deeply into.

The second piece of this tapestry was the focus on the ambitions of Little K. Though tsarevitch Niki was her first and foremost concern, her career as a ballerina was also pretty important to her. This was where I started getting annoyed with her, for she was just so overwhelmingly narcissistic about what a wonderful dancer she was and how she was leagues beyond her counterparts when it came to her performance style. As Little K’s relationship with the tsarevitch begins to heat up, she’s granted special compensation and undeserved roles in the ballet due to her standing as a royal favorite. I think even Little K herself knew that she never would have gotten as far as she did on her own merits, and that wasn’t where the problem lay with me. The problem was her incessant bragging and her hostility and tantrums when she didn’t get her way to the letter. She was also ruthless about attacking the other ballerinas’ looks and skill, and for me, it got old very quickly. Whenever Little K opened her mouth to pat herself on the back, I just rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

The love story in this book was not exactly what you would call one of romance and like-mindedness. Rather, it was punctuated by obsession and jealously, mostly from Little K. It was clear that she would never be able to marry the tsar, being that she was only a dancer, but Little K held on to that little nugget of hope that one day he would be hers. She went to some great lengths to seduce him and anger his wife, Alix, and while he almost always indulged her, it was clear that he was also wary of her at times. I didn’t see a lot of reciprocity when it came to the love between the tsar and Little K, but in her eyes, this was unimportant. Though it’s not the type of love that I would want, in the end, both parties stood by each other and tried very hard to save each other, which may indeed point to a greater love and respect than I had thought possible in this union.

Though I had some niggles with the main character’s behavior and antics, I did really enjoy the book’s deep historical leanings, and I ended up learning a lot. There were a lot of ballet and dancing terms scattered throughout, and since I’m not a dancer, I was happy to let my eyes glide over those bits with no detriment to my reading experience. If you’re the type of reader who can’t stand smug and self-centered characters, this is probably not the book for you. But if you want a very elaborate and detailed account of 19th century Russia and its last tsar, you would be doing a great thing by picking up this book.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

21 comments:

Kathy said...

Ziblee thanks for a great review. I am annoyed by egotistical characters (too many in real life!) but am intrigued by the time period. I also enjoy the last reign of the Romanovs - so tragic. I think I'll give this one a try.

TheBookGirl said...

Well know I have a bit of a connundrum...I love reading about Russian history, the tsars, etc... so your comments about how this is a rich, informative work in that regard makes me think it would certainly be for me -- but on the other hand, I am easily put off by the type of character you describe here to the point where it will ruin a book for me.
Have to give this one so more thought..wonderful, insightful review as always!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I don't really like historical fiction that assumes words and thoughts of real people instead of just introducing us to a historical setting. But it does sound to me like it would make a great movie!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Truth be told, this kind of behavior is probably very realistic. But it doens't make for a story that is easy to invest in. Like you I am fascinated with this time in history, but I'm not sure this is the book to use for my education! Excellent review though!

Nymeth said...

The 19th century Russian setting really is very appealing! But as a mostly character-oriented reader, I wonder how I'd feel about it overall.

Jenna said...

Hmm...sounds like I could go either way with this one. I have always been intrigued by Russian history and literature...so dark and mysterious. The fact that the author was able to create such a realistic setting has me intrigued. However, I'm not sure about the main character. I guess a lot of people in the creative arts are more egotistical than average (probably out of necessity in such cut-throat industries), but I'm not sure I would want to read an entire story written through this perspective. Fantastic review!

Audra said...

I bet I'd be bothered by the heroine as well -- but the setting and premise are so intriguing I'm keeping in my TBR. Still -- we'll see if I can stick with it if I can't stand K! :/ Thanks for the thoughtful, honest review.

bermudaonion said...

I too am fascinated about that period in Russian history. Too bad Little K is so arrogant. I think I'd still be willing to give the book a try.

nomadreader said...

I had high hopes for this one, but it fell victim to library return dates. I started it and struggled to get into it, and with only one week check-outs, I returned it and never got around to re-requesting. I also read it right after Russian Winter, which didn't wow me, and The Invisible Bridge, which did. They all had ballet as a theme, and I think I needed a break.

Kaye said...

Sounds wonderful to me but then I love stories set in Russia in this time period. I'm not even sure what it is about it that fascinates me so much.

Melissa said...

I love all things Russian and may be willing to put up with an irritating main character.

Jenny said...

I can never figure out a good rule of thumb for when I'm going to like a protagonist and when not. It feels like it should be a straightforward liking of sympathetic protagonists and disliking of unsympathetic ones, but there's too many exceptions either way. I feel like, though, this one would be too unsympathetic for me -- she sounds like Amber in Forever Amber!

Darlene said...

Well I don't think this is the book for me. It sounds like maybe a bit too detailed for my liking. I also have such a hard time with a book when I don't really like the main character. Thankfully it was at least an ok read for you in spite of not being fond of the main character.

Aths said...

It's been a while since I've read a Russian historical book. This book sounds good, though like you, I don't know so much about dance to be able to read about it. I think I will keep this in my radar and look for it some time. Loved your review!

Amy said...

Hmmm the history sounds great but wow, the character might drive me nuts like she did you!

Vasilly said...

I remember you talking about Little K's arrogance and ego last week on my blog. I can't stand to read a book where the main character is someone I don't like. Great review. I think I'll pass this book up.

Vasilly said...

I remember you talking about Little K's arrogance and ego last week on my blog. I can't stand to read a book where the main character is someone I don't like. Great review. I think I'll pass this book up.

Geosi said...

Sorry about the main character's antics although I would also love to learn more about the historical bits.

Jenny said...

I know very little about Russian history but I'm thinking I should stick to something else if I want to read about it?

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This would be an interesting book to read in conjunction with Daphne Kalotay's RUSSIAN WINTER (about ballet under Stalin).

Yes, probably the egotistical side of Little K is a realistic characterization.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

When a MC isn't what you are looking for, I always feel the author tend to use the plot at a crutch. I might add this one. Thanks :)

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio