Inspired by a fragment of family memoirs, this tale of 1860s St. Petersburg is a strange curio, a tantalizing echo of the 19th-century Russian novel--with its tireless scrutiny of agate egos veined in corrosive passions and its grandly verbose tussles with the soul's adventures in Destiny and Meaning. Kyra Beherev, like her adored late father, is ""looking for the elusive splendid something, which magically was the key to everything."" And after his death Kyra grimly joins the household of her late mother's sister: Aunt Luba Shubalov, who's proud, cold, yet oddly vulnerable. ""When I came to live with my aunt I felt like a word taken out of context meaning nothing,"" says Kyra. Worse still, she makes a forbidden appearance at a Masked Ball--as the glittering, seductive Lilith in a red mask who fascinates Count Anatole Melin, a handsome, eligible, devil-may-care bachelor (""Only fools think; wise men simply know""); and once in Anatole's rooms he sees pale Kyra as she really is--but too late to keep from compromising her reputation. So: Kyra's cousin, sword-clattering Mischa, storms in to demand satisfaction; Kyra, to prevent the duel, claims she's fallen in love; Anatole is trapped into wedlock. And Kyra and Anatole agree secretly to play out a year of marriage--which begins nicely enough as Kyra delicately, cunningly performs the role (""There are so many different selves in each of us""). But then, in Italy, she's drawn to a magnet group of intellectuals presided over by Anna Obrinsky (gushing away in her ""moaning soprano"")--and Kyra again meets poet Andrey Tverskoy, whose poetry she recited at the Ball. Thus, back at home, destiny-driven, Kyra and Andrey love on a lofty plain indeed--until Kyra's triumphal march over ""people of no vision"" will result in the death of a good man. But did she really commit a crime? She tells two ""truths"": one to herself and one to the departing Andrey, for whom love of Kyra has become a wound. An artful backward glance at the old Russian masters--seemingly scaled down for a broad readership, but still resonant enough to stand quaintly apart from run-of-the-mill historical romance.