18 November 2009


Most teen girls prefer to spend their free time shopping. (Well, I don't - I hate shopping, but that‘s a story for another day). Not sixteen year old Sashenka Zeitlin. The daughter of a prominent and wealthy (but excruciatingly dysfunctional) Russian Jewish family, devout communist Sashenka spends her free time smuggling illegal weapons for the Bolsheviks and dreaming of the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. In the winter of 1916, Sashenka gets her chance to aid the Bolshevik cause in a dangerous game of double-dealing espionage that has consequences far more deadly than she'll ever realize. Fast forward almost twenty years later - Sashenka and her secret policeman husband Vanya are at the top of Soviet society, well-respected and well-to-do. Sashenka is about as far up as one can expect to get in Stalinist Russia. And then, against her better judgment, Sashenka becomes involved with an outspoken writer and, like so many of her fellow Bolsheviks who got on Stalin's bad side, she disappears into thin air. Fast forward about another fifty years when a young Russian historian is hired to piece together a genealogy and uncovers Sashenka’s fate in the process…

Let me put up a disclaimer before I launch into this review: I LOVE Russian History. In fact, it’s one of the periods I want to study as a history major. So when I saw a book advertised that mentioned the Russian Revolution and Stalinist purges, I get excited (not in an insane "I condone political radicalism" sort of way, but in an “OMG!I am a pathetic history buff” sort of way.) I first saw this book mentioned in a review a year ago and just now got my hands on it. Fortunately, after that wait, I was not disappointed! Sashenka is an amazing novel! The historical detail is just perfect. This book brings to life the chaos of the Revolution and the uncertainty of the Stalinist purges. (Author Simon Montefiore is a historian and his expertise is really what makes this book so enjoyable. The man certainly knows his Russian history.) As a result, If you also love Russian history, you will adore this book (and have a lot of fun playing “Recognize that Bolshevik!”) Don't panic if you're not a history buff. Unlike many historical novels, this book is historically accurate and still accessible, even if you can't tell Stalin from Trotsky (There is also a handy character list in the back if you get confused).

But what makes Sashenka enjoyable is that it is so well-written. I've read some historical novels that were very realistic but came off as badly-written 8th grade textbooks. Not Sashenka! Montefiore writes in an eloquent, sophisticated style that reminds me a lot of Gregory Maguire and Ron Rash. The characters are another plus. All of them seem so real. I was expecting it would be hard to sympathize with Sashenka, but I was wrong. I disagreed with her politics and her affair (I think I started yelling at her in my mind, “What are you doing?! Vanya loves you! How could you?!”) But I still found her likable, and I had to know what happened to her, even though I knew whatever it was would not be good. Montefiore handles the complex plot with skill. This book has epic proportions (500 pages!), so I was expecting it to drag in spots. Happily, I was wrong! I couldn't put this book down.

I did find a few plot twists in the third part that were a little too pat for my taste, but they weren't detrimental to the novel at all. I will warn you: this book does have some adult content and is a bit disturbing. The ending (where Sashenka's fate is finally revealed) will freak you out. I sat frozen in my chair with my mouth wide open. I believe I may also have started whimpering. You’ll also get an intro to Tsarist and Stalinist jails that you won’t soon forget. Great book, but don’t read it if you are squeamish. (This is my friendly public service announcement for the week.)

Sashenka is the perfect blend of historical accuracy, memorable characters, suspenseful plot, and exquisite style. If you love historical fiction, read this book! And even if you don't love historical fiction, give this book a read - it is masterfully crafted. I am now off to find Montefiore's non-fiction books...

Next Week: Probably Ayn Rand's Anthem. Or Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Leaning more toward the Rand novel, but we shall see. (And no I don't mean we in the royal sense. Or do I?)


  1. I love Russian History and I love historical fiction! I'm thinking I'm going to have to read this, Zella.
    Great review! :)

  2. This sounds great! I just put it on hold :)

  3. Oooh I like historical fiction. This sounds like a good book. :D Thanks, Zella!
    Oh, and for that public service message, too. Very kind of you. Altogether too kind.

  4. All of you snuck up on me today! :D

    Penguins Quack - Ah, a fellow Russian history fan. I think you'll love this book - lots of great detail. Montefiore has two biographies of Stalin that I am going to dive into next. I'll let you know if they're good. (If Sashenka is any indication, I'd say they will be.) :)

    Laura - Oooh, you're fast! I hope you like Sashenka - I thought it was a beautiful novel. Let me know what you think about it! (P.S. I finally got Catching Fire! Yay! Maybe I'll get to rid it this weekend. Hopefully...) :)

    Scott - I hope you like it. As for the public service announcement - Hehe I know some of you are younger than me. I didn't want your parents chasing me down with a cyber hatchet: "You told my kid to read a book about Soviet torture chambers!" *dodges hatchet blow* :D

  5. *read. Not rid. I spent too long studying today... :D

  6. 'Rid' is perfectly acceptable to say in some cultures, so no harm done. And for similar reasons (no it does *not* appeal to me because a lot of innocent people die...)I love Russian/German history in that era. I like Egyptian history too, gotta love a mummie : D but that's beside the point.
    Thanks for the review! And I put this (plus Hunger Games) in my library que.

  7. Rebecca, Yay! Tell me what you think once you've read it. :) I love Egyptian history too! Who doesn't love a good mummy?! I love German history as well, but, alas! it does not feature mummies. :D

    I must say it does my heart good to see how many of you are history buffs! :)