Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

I picked up The Russian Concubine at a discount bookstore based purely on the blurb on the back. A story about White Russians living in Junchow, China in 1928 sounded like a great locale and population for a novel. After a grad school classmate wrote a paper about Russians in China I became intrigued by an ex-pat community I had never heard about before. This book fit that niche perfectly making it a great opportunity for a summer read.

The Russian Concubine was good, but it could have been better. I really enjoyed exactly what I had hoped for - the locale and the interaction between vastly different communities of inhabitants. However, Furnivall fell into too much romance and the plot fell flat by the end of the story. The story revolves around Lydia Ivanova, a young Russian whose father was killed by the Communists when they were fleeing Russia in 1917. The story picks up in 1928 with Lydia pickpocketing a British gentleman and bringing the money back to her drunken, beautiful, classical piano playing mother. Finding herself trapped by dangerous locals, an exotic stranger saves her - enter the love interest: Chang An Lo.

Furnivall's strength lies in her ability to describe the interaction between the various ethnic communities living in China in the interwar era. The British have the money and the power. The Chinese are in the midst of a Civil War between Chang Kai Shek - supported by the British, and the Communists (pre-Mao and a strong leadership). The Russians, meanwhile, exist in a vacuum without either passports, wealth, or power. Lydia and her mother work to give themselves a legitimacy in the society to which they do not belong. The mother uses her beauty to gain financial and social support from better-off men, the daughter uses her wits to manipulate the society to help her.

While I immersed myself in Furnivall's world the story drug in the second half. She spent too much time laboring over the romantic relationship between Lydia and Chang An Lo. Lydia manages to find and save her love in a highly unrealistic way. At the last moment Furnivall throws in a curve ball which I found highly unnecessary and likewise unlikely.

The Russian Concubine was a good summer read; it was diverting and romantic. But I had hopes of reading a more historically-driven accurate story which it was not.

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