At the age of 100, Mathilde Kschessinska sits down to write her memoirs. Now living in Paris, Kschessinska looks back fondly–albeit delusionally–on the prime of her life, when she was the prima ballerina assoluta of the Russian Imperial Ballet. As a talented and scheming girl of seventeen, Mathilde caught the eye of tsarevich Nicholas Romanov, the man who would later become the last tsar of Russia. The two entered a whirlwind romance; as Nicholas’s mistress, Mathilde gained professional opportunities and amassed material possessions. She envisioned herself as the future matriarch of the imperial family, but of course, it was never a possibility: Nicholas went on to marry Alexandra, and Mathilde was left with nothing but an empty home and a name of ill repute. As the years passed and Alexandra gave birth to several daughters but no male heir, Nicholas’s affections began to waver, and Mathilde found a way to capture the tsar’s attention once more. By this time, the revolution that would bring down the imperial family was beginning to foment, and Mathilde’s rekindled relationship with Nicholas would have dark consequences.
I didn’t like The True Memoirs of Little K at first. The first few chapters are devoted extensive descriptions of St. Petersburg at its height, and no detail is spared. Unfortunately, this meant that the beginning of the book is sorely lacking in plot and character development, and I was frequently tempted to stop reading. Once you do start seeing some character development, it becomes apparent that Mathilde is unbelievably vain, and she thinks so highly of herself and her place in history that I often wondered if she was mentally ill. A reliable narrator she is not.
Despite all of my initial frustrations with the book, Little K came to grow on me. Once it got moving, I started to appreciate the descriptions of life during that time period, especially when it came to the ballet. I was also left wanting to know more about Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov and their missteps that stoked the flames of the revolution. It was also interesting to see how how other famous characters, such as Rasputin, fit into the story (side note: I could not read “Rasputin” without this song getting stuck in my head). My memory of Russian history is sketchy at best, so I had to go back and verify just how many artistic liberties Adrienne Sharp took with history (FYI: pretty much the entire last half of the main plot could not have happened). Still, Sharp’s ability to describe things is amazing, and I found her retelling of major historical events like Bloody Sunday fascinating.
I don’t usually read historical fiction (that whole “what’s true? what’s not?” thing gets annoying after a while), but I’m glad I stuck with this book because I ended up liking it a whole lot more than I thought I would. It piqued an interest in the history of this era, and I definitely want to read more about the fall of the Romanovs (I fully intend to read this book in the near future). People who can’t stand revisionist/fictionalized history will probably be turned off by this book, but however obnoxious Mathilde Kschessinska may have be as a narrator, but she certainly knows how to spin a good story.
The True Memoirs of Little K was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 26, 2010.