In her palace on Nevsky Prospect, Princess Mariyenka Nocolaevna Poliakov had been in labor since dawn. At the first pains, she had woken her sister, Adele, who had come from Moscow for her confinement, and had Adele send for Vera Petrovna, the midwife. Now, four hours later, she was sitting at her table de toilette, staring at her reflection in the glass. She pushed back a loose strand of her chestnut hair, ran her finger across her arched brows, adjusted the bodice of her pink silk gown so that her breasts, which almost burst through her pale skin, were perfectly symmetrical, and smiled at herself. (p.1)
Summary: On the very day that Sonya is born to the Princess, Alexander II of Russia is assassinated, and Sonya will from an early age have a fascination with the revolutionary, particularly when her beloved brother Bruno runs off at the age of 17 to become a revolutionary himself. She will soon be involved in the attempt to overthrow the Czar, but will discover that it is not quite like she had romanticized it to be. She marries Count Gregory Tolchin, ostensibly in order to spy on him, but as it happens, Tolchin is also a revolutionary, and her real task for the Cause is to seduce men to gain information for him and his co-conspirators. Tolchin eventually has to fake his death, leaving Sonya alone, and, her romantic notions of revolution re-asserting themselves, she will end up assassinating someone she was supposed to spying on, with the result that she too has to flee. On the ship to America, she takes charge of an orphaned Jewish girl, whom she names Delphi, and uses her to get through American immigration. Sonya meets Gregory again, and they become key members of the pro-revolution circles in New York City. It is in this context that Delphi, who in a sense is the real main character of the work grows up.
Unfortunately for Sonya, who never entirely shakes her romanticized notion of revolution, growing up in a house of revolutionaries is a very effective antidote to any revolutionary impulses. Delphi has seen Sonya turning up the melodrama and acting for revolutionary fundraising so much that she largely sees everything Sonya does as being similar; the revolution is for her only a kind of fakery, an impression that is confirmed by seeing the inconsistencies of revolutionaries up close. What interests Delphi is art, a pursuit of which Sonya thoroughly disapproves, and when Sonya vandalizes one of Delphi's paintings, she runs away to Italy. After a while, she eventually makes it to the school of Luis Marra, one of Europe's most accomplished forgers, who also runs a select art academy. She becomes his lover, and she is happy with the situation until she becomes pregnant. She wants to keep the child; Marra, convinced that raising a child will ruin her artistic potential, wants her to abort it. When she refuses, he breaks with her, to her devastation. The child, unfortunately, dies not long afterward, devastating her again. She eventually (with Sonya's help) pulls herself back together enough to get back into art, making a few mistakes along the way. She marries a German doctor, and they go to live in Germany in 1936, which ends entirely as well as you would imagine it would, with the result that she has to be rescued by Gregory. She will give birth to a girl from that marriage, Anna.
The book has many interesting sections, and while the characters start out very annoying, their complexity is unfolded quite well over the course of the narrator. It's mostly an episodic book, without a definite plot; the characters just go through a whole range of dramatic events from the late nineteenth century to 1945. I suppose you could think of it as a story-painting of life in the first half of the twentieth century. The authors do a good job of depicting just how dehumanizing life as a revolutionary inevitably is -- a life in which human beings are only regarded as means -- and of capturing some of the excitement and despair of being an artist. It's enjoyable, if a bit melodramatic, but doesn't really move anywhere, despite all of the main characters having a definite character arc.
Favorite Passage: The start of Delphi's passion for art:
...Delphi lifted up her satchel and walked up the stairs to her room. She unpacked her belongings, lifting up her sweater to her nose to see if she could smell the pine. On the bottom of the satchel was Carl Borach's sketch of the deer. She picked it up and looked at it. Only a few lines, a few smudges, and it was a deer there on paper. It was magical....
Delphi clsoed the door and slipped off her clothes, changing into her nightdress. She went to the table next to the bed and pulled up the rocking chair. She found a blunted pencil and few pieces of writing paper and carefully put the sketch of the deer in front of her, up above the blank paper. She tried to copy it, a line here and there, a cross, a curve. No. Another piece of paper and then the last piece of paper. It was not so easy. She turned the paper over and began again, and finally, finally there was something. She looked at the lamp on the table. At least that was in the room with her. She would draw that. She saw things about the lamp she had never seen before, dents in the tin, lines actually carved into the tin for decoration. The lamp was not round at all; it was smaller at the bottom, growing fatter and fatter, spinning where it sat. She made it too large; the paper could not contain it. She made it too small and wrong, wrong. She erased and began again. Soon all the papers were erased and torn. She went to the bureau and got more paper. The tip of the pencil was worn down, so she pulled off pieces of its wood with er teeth to make more lead appear. Finally the lamp was there on her paper. She felt so elated, so triumphant.... (p. 251)
Recommendation: While it's readable and the characters grow on you, the story really doesn't go anywhere. It's a decent light read if it happens to be at hand, but you probably don't need to go looking for it.
Dora Landey & Elinor Klein, Triptych, Houghton Mifflin (Boston: 1983).