One problem with a novel that is set in a turbulent time is that events can overwhelm character. The background noise drowns out the voice in the foreground, and instead of a fully fleshed person as hero or heroine, the book serves up The Southerner or The Resistance Fighter or, as in "A Daughter of the Nobility," The Russian Aristocrat.
Tatyana Silomirskaya is a Russian princess, playmate to the children of the czar, adored by her widowed father, taught the responsibilities of her role by her autocratic grandmother. The only disappointment in her otherwise lush life is her family's refusal to allow her to study medicine. A princess may visit the sick; she may not treat them. But the ardor of her handsome cousin, the Polish Prince Stefan, reconciles her to her fate.
As children, the cousins are interesting in a harum-scarum way, pushing up against the boundaries of their privilege, daring and naughty and utterly devoted to each other. "Stevie-levie, monkey ears, you old lobster, I love you so much I love you almost as much as Papa," says the youthful Tanya. "Tanya-panya, skinny-ninny, freckle nose and icy toes," says the future Rex Poloniae, "I'll make you my queen."
But of course he cannot. War intervenes and he's off to the front. At first it is almost a cartoon version of conflict, as the patriotic piper plays the rousing tunes and spectators watch "two German Fokker monoplanes of the type hitherto used in reconnaissance, which were evidently trying to bomb the rail point. The single explosive each pilot dropped out of the cockpit by hand fell wide of the mark. No one was hurt. A machine gun was mounted on the station's roof but the aeroplanes did not return. Children took pieces of the bomb casing for souvenirs. Parental supervision was lax and they ran about as on holiday."
But not all the bombs bounce about so harmlessly and soon Tanya, a nurse at the front, discovers just what damage a shell can do. Before the battle between nations ends, the guns have blasted the arms and legs off many a young man, and then moved on to yet a larger target. They have blasted apart Russia, shattering the political alliances that kept it intact.
People vanish. Blown up, shot down, put in prison, who knows where they've gone? There are Reds and Whites, rules to remember, no food to eat, and that past of privilege and protection is now a guarantee of harsh treatment. It is rich material for a novelist, depicting those times when the world flips over and the top dog must learn the bottom dog's trick -- how to sit up and beg. It has been done and brilliantly, but while "A Daughter of the Nobility" is not a bad book, it misses being as good as it might have been because the author has chosen to glue us to Tanya. It is her side we stay by, her view we share, her personality that must sustain us.
The tension that would have been created by switching from one viewpoint to another, one place to another, is lacking, and the plot shuffles forward like a horse wearing blinders, with nothing to distract it from its ambling pace. Tanya, we are told again and again by those around her, is an unusual person, "a woman to reckon with," says the czar, but as the book progresses, she lacks force, choosing safety instead of commitment, preserving a certain remoteness from the life she has chosen to lead.
Stefan is much more interesting, and so is the relationship between him and Tanya, bound together as they are by family ties, similar backgrounds and childhood fealty. But Stefan is early on whisked off to war, forced into the single dimension of a dream. Indeed, the people who are most interesting, whose view of events might have given the book more depth and tension -- people like Prince Lomatov-Moskovsky, the witty, detached historian, or Genady Roslov, a pianist who sees war in terms of how it will affect his hands, or the valiant General Boris Maysky, who manages to survive unseen in revolutionary Moscow, carrying out swift and successful rescue operations before joining the Whites -- have only small, walk-on roles. Alexis Holveg, the scientist who is supposed to be the bridge between the way things were and the way they are, is more irritating than interesting. "A Daughter of the Nobility" is flawed by the flaws of its heroine -- a limited vision and a lack of passion. Early in the book Tanya fears that she will ruin her life by giving in to her gypsy nature. Sadly for the book, she succeeds in becoming a better person -- and a less interesting one.