2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 – first the toppling of the Tsar and the establishment of a provisional government, and then the toppling of the provisional government by the Soviets – and the occasion has prompted a tsunami of new books on all things Russian. Dozens of fat histories, fat biographies of Lenin and Stalin, fat chronicles of war, famine, and ideology – all have flowed from the presses in the last 11 months. Late in this season now appears Janet Fitch's new 800-page novel, The Revolution of Marina M., in which a young woman named Marina Makarova, born with the century, is 16 when her native city, her beloved St. Petersburg, is poised to undergo the series of historical convulsions we're now commemorating a century later.
When readers first meet this young Marina, at a party being thrown on New Year's Eve at the comfortable house of her father, she's dreaming about what the future holds for herself and her two best friends, the scientific, methodical Mina and the intellectual, opinionated Varvara. “I try to remember how it was before [Varvara] came, when it had been just Mina and myself,” she recalls. “My life had been sweet and dull, a normal bourgeois Petersburg girlhood: studying, going to the kinotheater on Nevsky Prospect – at first accompanied by my governess but later with my brothers, with Mina.” This comfortable, moneyed life is brightened for Marina by the furloughed return of the dashing young Kolya Shurov, the object of her girlish infatuation.
In a pattern that will hold steady throughout the novel, Fitch sketches a portrait of this glittering, happy world that's rendered all the more vivid for being brief. In a handful of pages, revolutionary passions have found Marina and Varvara, sweeping them into the mass movements beginning to ripple across the country, movements like International Women's Day (“IF A WOMAN IS A SLAVE, THERE WILL BE NO FREEDOM. LONG LIVE EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN!”). As the turmoil grows, the stalwarts of Marina's bourgeois world cling to the hope that their old world will be restored. “This was it – the tsar would crush the revolution,” they hope. “The mutineers would go to the firing squad or to the front, and all would be back to the way it was before.”
Far from it: Marina embarks on a series of adventures both political and personal, and her identity seems to shift with each new chapter. Readers of Fitch's bestselling 1999 novel "White Oleander" will be familiar with this as a rough outline; in that book, young heroine Astrid Magnussen voyages from world to world as she's moved from one adoptive family after another. But whereas Astrid's adventures are stitched together by the outsized personality of her mother Ingrid, Fitch provides only Russian history as the scaffolding of Marina's coming-of-age and never seems aware of how unsatisfying that substitution is.
Not that Marina's adventures aren't endlessly interesting. This is Fitch's most powerful narrative, beautifully and propulsively written, dense with atmosphere and poetics. For one lean, weird segment, Marina falls into the clutches of vile, vulgar Arkady von Princip, a sadist who holds her hostage and tortures her. “Once you'd escaped Arkady von Princip, you were best off staying very, very far away,” she observes at this point, and when she herself escapes, she finds her way to Pulkovo Observatory on a hilltop over St. Petersburg, caring for five elderly astronomers. “They wanted to catch the stars in their beds, know how they danced, what held them and what forced them to blow apart,” Marina observes in the prose poetry that runs throughout the book. “Stars in their matrix – how hot, how cold, how far, how old.” When the state police raid the observatory and take her into custody back in the city, Marina – in the stilted self-consciousness that also, alas, runs throughout the book – laments: “Poor suffering Petrograd. It was supposed to be the new, just society, and now it was a bloodbath. Civil war. My country, coming apart.”
Every twist and turn of that civil war touches on Marina's life (or Varvara's, or Volya's) in some way or other as the book progresses, and although a fair number of these correspondences feel contrived, and although Marina in all her bathos is never half so interesting a character as supporting player Varvara, Fitch is nonetheless in fine, epic form in these pages. There are liberal literary echoes scattered throughout, from the opening-party gambit out of "War and Peace" to some clever call-backs to "Doctor Zhivago," and these gestures aren't presumptuous; the reading experience Fitch has orchestrated here genuinely does share the opulence and intimacy of the great Russian masterpieces. It's their monumental drive that feels missing, or distracted.
Marina is at times difficult to root for, but the sweep of Russian history in "The Revolution of Marina M.," the parade of peasants and dreamers and thugs and revolutionaries, will likely carry readers along.