Published by: Pegasus
Published on: August 1, 2012
Page Count: 400
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
My Reading Format: eGalley sent to me by the publicist for consideration
Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook
Last year I read a great deal of historical fiction set in Russian. I loved it. It felt new and fresh and, quite frankly, was a nice change of pace for my typical European based historical fiction. I can’t explain what took me so long to look for this topic in my reading because I’ve always enjoyed the classics of Russian literature that I’ve studied or simply read for pleasure. When I was offered the opportunity to read The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff, I couldn’t pass it up. It was the right decision. Not only did I learn a great deal about Russian authors and poets, it provided food for thought about gender roles both now and in the past and they are impacted by culture.
Popoff presents the lives of six Russian literary wives: Sophia Tolstoy, Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. I found each story fascinating. While they each had different reasons for embarking on their marriages, each woman had the same unswerving devotion to their husband’s art and contribution to society. They were integral to their husband’s success and legacy because they made their husband’s writing their life work as well. This did not make them simply 50s style wives tending the home and hearth while their husbands created art. Indeed there is no comparison. Nadezdha Mandelstam memorized each poem her husband wrote so that his work wouldn’t be yet another victim of the Soviet government. Sophia Tolstoy, after her husband experienced a religious conversion that bordered on mental illness, had to fight her husband and his followers to defend his estate and his legacy. When not fighting for their husband’s art, there were the countless hours of taking dictation, reviewing early drafts, and losing night after night of sleep to help ensure that deadlines were met. I left this book feeling that without their wives, many of these authors and their work would be unknown today.
While these women made their own choices and not a one ever seemed to express regret over their decision to make their husband’s vocation their life’s work, it made me think about gender roles and the influence of culture on women’s choices. Had Sophia, Vera, Elena, Nadezdha, Anna, and Natalya been the passionate writers, would their husbands have made reciprocal sacrifices? Even if their husbands would, would their society have taken them as seriously at the time? As much as I appreciate the idea of a marriage based upon a common, uniting goal, giving myself up to the pursuits of my husband seems utterly foreign to me. It makes me want to delve into the lives of the wives of American and European authors. Did they make similar life decisions? Are different decisions made during times of revolution and government oppression?
The Wives is an engaging look at the lives of six very different women linked by the common bond of cultivating and preserving their husband’s life’s work. A chapter was devoted to each woman, making it a good book to have on hand when reading time is limited. Although I read it from cover to cover, it can be read in any order. Popoff’s book has inspired me to plan more Russian classics into my reading life. Although Boris Pasternak’s wife was not featured, their mention has made Doctor Zhivago a must read in 2013. This book is perfect for readers interested in Russian literature or women’s studies. I couldn’t recommend this book any more highly.