Petrie, author of acclaimed historical novels (Hand of Glory, etc.), takes on the life of Pushkin: the result is a sturdy and engrossing tale, marred by an over-attention to pointless events (e.g., carriage journeys on muddy roads) and a skimming-over of the poet's intellectual and creative life. It's 1826 and Alexander Pushkin's literary celebrity is already assured, but as the result of overenthusiastic romancing, he's been exiled to his country estate, where he's guilty and chagrined at having missed the Decembrist uprising. He dashes off an obsequious note to Tsar Nicholas, and with characteristically idiotic benevolence, the Tsar releases Pushkin from exile and promises to keep a fond eye on him. Puskin surprises his friends by falling for a beautiful 13-year-old, Natalya, daughter of a drunken woman who hopes to buy her way out of poverty by marrying off her stunning offspring to the wealthiest suitor. But her get-rich scheme is foiled when the Tsar blunders in and orders the revolting woman to let Natalya marry Pushkin. Repulsed by sex, bored by poetry, the girl nevertheless has a rather mousy affection for Pushkin, and after a certain time, her social success grows by leaps and bounds--even the Tsar becomes enraptured. But Pushkin's sinking into a deep depression--Nicholas has noted an ""unconscious disloyalty"" in his work, and has banned his new books and heavily censored his literary magazine. Then Natalya meets the divine-looking Baron d'Anthes; when this silly cad publicly makes an off-color remark to the young woman, the distraught Pushkin is forced to challenge him to a duel--with fatal results. Pushkin the poet remains an enigma here, but the story of the beloved man's downfall--the result of the parallel tyrannies of the stupid Tsar and the stupider Natalya--is a gripping, sad story, told with finesse.