The run-up to the Russian Revolution as witnessed by a young Jewish refugee and her lovers.
In 1911, 18-year-old Inna, an orphan, steals a classmate’s passport to emigrate from her native Kiev to the imperial capital, St. Petersburg. (Jews are not allowed to leave the south of Russia.) On the train, she meets a kind peasant, Father Grigory, and a Romany palm-reader who tells her that her lifeline is short. She finds shelter with the Lemans, a family of luthiers, who also house and employ her cousin Yasha. After a brief period of discomfiture (in which she attempts to carve new lifelines into her palms), Inna, a gifted violinist, finds acceptance working in Leman’s shop. In hopes of arranging permanent documents, she visits Father Grigory, who is being lionized in his humble apartment by a group of aristocrats, mostly women. At the gathering she meets Horace, a British expatriate who paints miniatures for Fabergé, and his patron, Prince Youssoupof. Soon, though, things are looking up as Inna’s talent is noticed by Horace, who has influence with the capital’s musical elite. However, her stage fright, and blossoming affair with Yasha, soon derails her ambitions. Yasha, a revolutionary, disappears after a lovers’ quarrel, and the Lemans are glad to see Inna married off to the much older Horace. The exposition is painfully slow as war approaches, Father Grigory is revealed to be the notorious Rasputin, and revolution ignites. Late in the novel, conflict finally generates forward momentum. The three narrators (mostly Inna, with input from Yasha and Horace) are passive observers, commenting from the sidelines of history.
The chief appeal here is not plot but the detailed observation of daily Russian life during this period.