Certain books demand that a reader be in a certain mood; the best ones, of course, can be read anytime. Cecilia Sternberg's dramatic tale of a noble German, his family and friends between the two World Wars has enough chance, intrigue and romance to be an aristocratic "As the World Turns." So one must suspend disbelief, as well as the desire for depth, and simply plunge in. This is accomplished, but fluffylight, entertainment: furniture, food, clothing and jewels get almost as much as the characters.
The young Isherwood-like narrator, Eddie Livingston, leaves England after he takes his Oxford degree to become the tutor of 16-year-old Alexander Plevke, who lives with his widowed English mother, eccentric German grandmother and family guardian on a grand but impoverished estate in Schleswig - Holstein. "We drove into a paved courtyard," says Eddie on arrival, "to halt in front of what looked to me very like Versailles in miniature; sentry boxes first, then small lodges to right and left, stables, then two wings flanking a central building. The steep roofs all with mansard windows, the architecture entirely French, except that the house was built of brick which had faded into a pale rose colour." The ravishing, mischievous, brilliant Alexander immediately makes Eddie his confidante. He wants to study acting in England but fears that neither his grandmother nor his guardian, Herr Beck, will let him go. Eddie persuades both Alexander's mother -- who briefly falls in love with him -- and his grandmother, who thinks she is Catherine the Great. But Eddie can't win Beck's approval of the plan.
Within days of one another, the old woman and Beck die. Their deaths bind Eddie to Alexander forever, a tie Eddie resists. He returns to England and confides the events to his mother. For years she has worked on a history of the czars that her deceased husband left unfinished, and she sees similarities between the events at the estate and those during the reign of Catherine the Great. She is fascinated by the parallels and by what she hears of young Alexander.
Several years later when Eddie has a diplomatic post in Vienna, he once again meets Alexander, now a famous actor and as seductively beautiful and entertaining as ever. A married noblewoman, Marie Therese Hohenturn, with whom Eddie has been having an affair, turns her attentions to Alexander. Meanwhile Hitler has been gaining power, and the Viennese are split in their political loyalties. Harassment of Jews has begun, and Alexander almost dies trying to save a Jewish couple from a fire set in their house. A Jewish doctor and his nurse save Alexander's life. However, his looks and voice are gone.
When the Germans take Vienna, Alexander goes to Prague with the doctor and nurse. Marie Therese is there also, for her husband, a fascist of a different stripe than Hitler, is dead. Eddie arrives with the British Foreign Office. Marie Therese, Alexander and his devoted nurse, Esther, all try, each in his own way, to save Czechoslovakia.
One doesn't believe any of this for a moment -- nonetheless, it has its attractions. It is a fairy tale for grownups. There's a golden hero, a steady friend and mentor, a wise mother and wise doctor, a frivolous but generous mistress and a saintly nurse. There are villains, too. History catches them in its web. Then there is, one suspects, a moral. As the pieces of the puzzle fall together, one does get a sense of satisfaction. In the right mood, reading such nonsense can be fun.