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A mellow period tale about the implausible adventures of two besotted men attracted to dissimilar but tantalizing women--and about the two loyal, capable, ""ordinary"" women who will become successful ""second choices."" Eleven-year-old Sophie, one of three children in the Willoughby family, daughter of a skilled stockman, watches an odd procession into their bucolic English village circa 1902: leading off is the new cowman, Mr. Barshinskey, ""singing at the top of his voice in a language none of us could understand,"" with a fiddle under his arm and buttercups around his hat. His ragged, tired, English wife (Sophie will learn that Mr. B. is from Russia) pushes a cart with pathetic furniture. . . followed by sad Daisy May, sullen Ivan, and papa's adored Galina--with ""cat eyes,"" sensuous, very ""different."" In the ensuing months, then, the Barshinskeys become part of village life--with Sophie's mother crusading to ""reshape"" the family, upscale-wise. Mr. B. is a fine cowman and Sophie adores him (although there's something excessive about his attachment to Galina); Mother brings Mrs. B. into the local church circle; Daisy, thanks to Sophie and her brother Edwin, is on the way to belonging. But Ivan, who hates his father, just refuses to be grateful! And then trouble seems to happen all at once. Sophie's dad is horribly gored by a bull; terrible events are set into motion when the shy curate tries to commit suicide because of Galina--who's been topping religion with something else during revival meetings with a visiting evangelist (whom she runs off with). Mr. B.--a drinker in the best of times--causes his wife's death in a drunken frenzy; Ivan attacks his father with an axe. Then. . . skip a decade or so--and Edwin, now happy in his railroad job, sees Galina on the stage as ""Olga the Cossack Princess."" Before long Edwin, Blue Angel fashion, is after her, signing on as a stoker on a British ship to St. Petersburg--where Galina's wealthy, elderly lover will establish her. During the Russian Revolution Edwin's impossible mission is to bring home capricious Galina--while Daisy, joining a Quaker relief group, will eventually find him. And Sophie? Well, she's had a bit of a let-down--now that handsome Ivan is engaged to marry her porcelain sister Lillian, a ""stuck-up cow."" So there's danger and death in Russia, plus tempests in home tea-pots, before it all sorts out. A companionable, easy-reading saga from the author of Csardas (1975)--though the Russian adventure is less involving than Sophie's tale of that ""golden time"" in the summer of 1902.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1984
Publisher: Crown