The historical romance about Russia in the first quarter of the century presents that Russian Revolution and the events that preceded it from the unusual -- one might say almost inconceivable -- perspective of Russia's wealthy Jews. Neither the Russia of the czars nor the burgeoning republic of the Communists comes across very well, seen from the viewpoint of an admirable Jewish family experiencing anti-Semitism at its most aristocratic and communism at its most barbaric.
We see the cataclysmic events of Russian history chiefly, though not entirely, from the perspective of Sonia, the fictional counterpart of the author's grandmother, the Baroness Sonia Davidovna de Gunzburg. The baroness left her granddaughter three crates full of diaries and notebooks about her life as a Gunzburg, the first titled Jewish family of St. Petersburg under the Romanovs.
Inspired by the diaries, Monique Raphael High has written a family saga rich in details about the pampered life of Russian aristocrats before the country was torn by revolution -- and about what it was like for families of "white" Russians to be separated and stripped of their wealth by the "reds."
It is impossible to tell whether High, whose first novel this is, can write. Language is certainly not her strong suit, though surely an editor shares the blame for some of the worst clunkers (e.g., "Horace, since the death of his beloved wife, Anna Rosenberg, was not given to much joie de vivre").
However, she keeps the story moving along, and creates a vivid sense of family. You find yourself caring what happens to the four children of the Baron David de Gunzburg, whose fortunes as the Russian "Rothschilds" are greatly handicapped by both the virulent anti-Semitism of their countrymen and the swelling discontent of the Russian peasants.
Just as much of the novel's interest lies in our curiosity about which parts come directly from the diaries, so much of our involvement with the family's fate lies in our knowing, as most of them don't, that they are harboring a viper in the family nest -- as if being rich and Jewish weren't problem enough under the circumstances.
If our attention drifts during the first creaky chapters of exposition it is riveted, at last, when Johanna de Mey appears on the scene. As a vindictive Dutch lesbian governess, Johanna is a villainess worthy of 700 pages of internal booing and hissing. We watch, fascinated, as she spins her web about David's wife, determined to possess her and ruthless about whom she will destroy in the process -- though David is her chief target and Sonia, the favored daughter, becomes her chief enemy.
The only thing that might be more interesting than hearing Johanna's side of the story would be to peek at the diaries themselves, to see how so clearly forbidden a love revealed itself to the child of the woman involved, the baroness on whose diaries the novel is based.
But let me not mislead you. Although the current crop of historical romances is characterized by steamy albeit soft-core sex -- they're called "bodice-rippers" in the trade -- "The Four Winds of Heaven" is good clean storytelling in which even married love occurs behind closed doors. I counted one tonguish kiss, one illegitimate baby born of true love (socialist and offstage), and one quick and nasty rape to show how rotten revolution is. That's it for sex, although romantic vibrations abound, stilled only by frequent disaster.
We almost despair as Sonia and her siblings lose one potential fiance after another to parental disapproval, the tragedies of war, betrayal, social turbulence, conflicting desires, poorly timed marriages to other people, and Johanna's machinations. Indeed, Sonia is so buffeted by fate (at one point she weighs only 80 pounds) that we wonder how she has the strength to hold her head up, much less record everything in a diary. (She doesn't keep a diary in the novel, but we're aware that she must have.)
What keeps the pages turning is our curiosity: Will Sonia find the man of her dreams? One enjoys the grace notes of scholarship and family lore, and the unusual insight into the lot of Russia's Jews, but "The Four Winds of Heaven" wears its history lightly. And rightly so. Historical romances generally have less to do with history than with romantic fantasy, and this one is no exception. What's more, it's just the right length for the current strain of flu.