When I looked at the book stand in the airport drugstore, I knew that my options were pretty dire. Then I saw it there. Sandwiched between the pink chick lit books and the murder mysteries: a historical fiction called the Jewel of St. Petersburg. It didn’t look great, but I refused to let my second cannonball read out me as a chick lit reader on pajiba. Clearly I was being snobby enough to be taught a lesson. I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling with this review. While I have no problem ranting verbally, I tend to pull my punches in print. In case it isn’t clear, I did not enjoy this book. I do not recommend it, and I feel really sorry for the person who picks it up off of the hostel bookshelf where I left it and decides to waste their valuable holiday time reading it. Damn, now I feel guilty for leaving it there.
The Jewel of St. Petersburg is about a young, beautiful, rich woman named Valentina who socializes in the Romanov inner circle, but falls in love with a lowly engineer against her family’s wishes. To complicate matters further, she needs to protect her sister from the revolutionaries. Of course, it’s such a well-worn plot that it’s practically threadbare. However, I’ve read other books equally as predictable that were still entertaining and thought provoking or at the very least sexy. Unfortunately this book completely missed the mark on all accounts.
The story begins with an attempt at a dramatic scene in which Valentina is found in the woods by a group of revolutionaries who are a part of the party bombing her family’s home. She escapes and arrives at the house just in time to see it blow up and finds her father holding her now legless sister.
While the scene didn’t occur on the page, it is made clear that Valentina has a regular habit of riding her horse out into the woods to look out over her father’s land and think deep thoughts. This is why she wasn’t there to protect her sister, though what she would have done to stop the bombing is unclear. This is the first of many attempts at characterizing Valentina. Over the course of the novel it becomes clear that she is beautiful, resourceful, deep, humble, hard working, intelligent and loving. Most of us could only wish to be even a fraction as wonderful as Valentina.
Even if she does the main character a great disservice by denying her any real faults, the author does a great job of filling out the other female characters. If Valentina was more tempted by opulence, concerned by her own personal welfare, or prone to vanity, she would be much easier to relate to and much more realistic. In reality, Valentina would probably have fallen for her own hype. She wouldn’t have simply used her beauty as a tool, she would have been proud of it, and rightly so. Give me a protagonist with some flaws and I’ll be far more interested in the story than I will in following a perfect individuals stumbling around an imperfect world.
I won’t go into the characterization of the men in the book, because there really isn’t any. The men are neither three-dimensional nor interesting and this weakens the story considerably. This is a problem that I have come across in many books written for women, and it’s incredibly unfortunate. It’s not that we can’t write books with both full and complete male and female characters. Hell, Helen Fielding gave Mark Darcy more personality and intrigue on one page than the engineer gets in this whole book. Yet, we’re supposed to buy that the most desirable young woman in St. Petersburg is in love with him? At the risk of getting ranty here, if it’s not obvious why these two personalities make a good pair, it’s not convincing that they are.
I was initially intrigued by the author’s decision to use an engineer as the love interest. Engineers simply don’t get enough action in literature, and at first I thought it was an interesting choice. However, as the novel plodded along and it became clear that the author didn’t plan to fill out his character any further, the novelty soon wore off. Moreover, as the novel reached its climax, the reason for this choice became increasingly clear. He is a sewage engineer who knows the tunnels under the city better than anyone. Of course, this is how they escape when the revolutionaries come for them. This tied things up all too neatly for my taste and took away from what was the one unique trait of character otherwise devoid of personality.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of this novel is how the author paces the revolution. It is always there, grinding along towards the inevitable, though I would have liked to have met more sympathetic and relatable revolutionaries. If this were a first person narrative, it would have made sense that the revolutionaries be portrayed as dirty, corrupt and without conscience. Valentina has no love for the tsar but she feels that the revolutionaries are destroying what is great about Russia as well as what is bad. She’s also from a rich family and so her perspective would have been skewed. Given that the novel is not told from Valentina’s perspective, and it’s made clear that she is decent enough, despite her upbringing, to look past their low class grime, the author could have done a much better job of portraying the revolutionaries as sympathetic characters.
Perhaps I am being a little bit too harsh on a book that is meant to be escapist fiction, but I think that this book, like the main character, tried to be too many things to too many people. It attempted to be a legitimate historical fiction and at the same time a modern fantasy about the every-woman succeeding against overwhelming odds. It failed on both accounts.