Alexander Pushkin, blaming the victim, book review, duel, feminism, historical fiction, honor, Jennifer Laam, literary fiction, Natalya Pushkina, Nicholas I, nineteenth century, Russia
Review: The Lost Season of Love and Snow, by Jennifer Laam
St. Martin’s, 2017. 334 pp. $17
He’s almost thirty, already Russia’s greatest poet, passionate, witty, and joyfully charismatic. She’s sixteen, gorgeous in the way that inspires poems, and yearns to free herself from a stifling household and a cruel, domineering mother. Poet and beauty are immediately attracted, and their wish comes true. Yet their marriage turns tragic, for Alexander Pushkin dies after a duel fought to defend his wife’s honor. History has blamed Natalya, because, as this novel argues, no matter what the truth, the woman’s always at fault.
Laam has written biographical fiction from Natalya’s first-person point of view, to set the record straight, and I think she largely succeeds. Yet in service to the argument, the novel occasionally suffers, so though I admire and recommend The Lost Season of Love and Snow, several parts mar the total effect.
The novel begins with Alexander on his deathbed. Since everyone who knows anything about Pushkin knows he lost his life to a duel — and if you don’t know, just read the jacket flap — this puts the author in a bind. Does she reveal this out front, or does she attempt to leave the ending a surprise? Obviously, she chooses the up-front approach, and as prologues go, this one works better than most. Yet the choice demands that all tension thereafter resides entirely in the how, and since we’re told who the killer is, that places a further obstacle in the storyteller’s way. A retrospective risks making every scene superfluous until the villain enters the narrative.
To her credit, Laam does her best to overcome this problem. The courtship sections offer plenty of reversals, and Natalya suffers doubts as to her suitor’s fidelity and whether he sees her only as a bauble to possess. These anxieties create some tension and amplify the theme. Yet I was impatient to get through these scenes, and not only because the real story comes later. Natalya’s mother and two sisters are flat characters, each unfailingly mean-spirited or warm. Though the meanness provides the chance for conflict, we already understand that Natalya can’t wait to escape, so, in a sense, drawing this out serves little purpose. If, however, the author had begun the story with the courtship and suggested foreboding about the upcoming marriage, neither she nor the reader would have had to work as hard.
But the two principal players carry the show, and once they marry, their passion for one another comes through loud and clear. And as a married woman making her way in St. Petersburg society, Natalya feels the danger escalate, and so do we. This web of gossip and intrigue centers on the czar, Alexander’s patron but also a known womanizer, who woos Natalya while thwarting her husband. (Known to history as the Iron Czar, Nicholas I unfortunately comes across in these pages as wooden instead, but at least he’s plenty threatening.) Further, she acquires a reputation as a flirt, not entirely undeserved, though of course nowhere near the way jealous tongues would have it.
Besides, Natalya’s motives are more nuanced than anyone could have understood. As she observes late in the narrative:
More and more, I sought escape from our little family dramas in masquerades.… When I wore my costumes, I was no longer a wife and mother with debts and a distracted husband, but a character from a fairytale, a figure from history — a goddess. Once a group approached me at a ball to tell me how fine I looked, I longed for more people to do so. I was no longer the decorative poet’s wife. For once in my life, I felt valued for myself, not for how well my presence reflected someone else’s glory.
I like this psychological observation, which doesn’t go too far toward feminism for the time, yet sends a message. Even better, I like another gambit Laam tosses out during a flirtation between Natalya and the man who eventually forces Alexander to challenge him to a duel. Distressed by her husband’s spendthrift ways and haphazard work habits, she briefly fantasizes life with the worldly, handsome, wealthy philanderer — unconsciously killing off Alexander, if you will. Natalya immediately draws back, but I wish she’d toyed with her fantasy more persistently, for it would have engaged the boundary between thought and action that causes so much trouble in public misperception. Nevertheless, Laam is being very brave, here, risking her heroine’s reputation in the reader’s eyes. That is the author’s theme, and The Lost Season of Love and Snow tackles it forthrightly.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.