Midnight in St Petersburg begins in the year 1911 and tells the story of Inna Feldman, a young Jewish woman from Kiev. Inna is an orphan living with relatives but when they decide to leave for Palestine to escape the anti-Jewish violence in Kiev, she is left to make her way to St Petersburg on her own to seek refuge with a distant cousin, Yasha Kagan. For a girl travelling alone carrying stolen identity documents, the journey north is dangerous, especially as the Russian Prime Minister has recently been assassinated during a visit to the theatre in Kiev, but with the help of a peasant who calls himself Father Grigory, Inna is able to find her cousin’s home. Through Yasha she meets the Leman family and is given a job in their violin-making workshop.
As the political situation in St Petersburg becomes more unsettled and the country heads towards revolution, Inna finds herself torn between two very different men. The first is her rebellious cousin Yasha, a revolutionary activist who shares her love of violin music. The second is Horace Wallick, a respectable Englishman who paints miniatures for the famous jeweller, Fabergé. Inna must choose between these two men and the completely different lifestyles they offer: one passionate but filled with danger; the other more predictable but secure and safe.
I received a review copy of this book unexpectedly a few months ago and despite being immediately attracted by the title (I love books set in Russia, especially St Petersburg) it has taken me a while to find time to actually read it. I regret not reading it earlier as it turned out to be such an interesting read. The author explained the politics of the period very well, making everything clear and easy to follow, and I liked the fact that we were shown the effects of the revolution on a wide variety of people from different social and cultural backgrounds.
The only problem I had with this book was that I just didn’t find the central romantic storyline very exciting or convincing. This is probably because, for a long time, I didn’t like either of Inna’s two love interests, so wasn’t particularly bothered which of them she would eventually choose. I did start to warm to them both towards the end, though, and after finishing the book and reading the author’s note I was fascinated to discover that Horace’s character was based on the story of Vanora Bennett’s own great-great-uncle who also worked as an artist in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. I thought this personal connection helped to add a real touch of authenticity to the story I had just been reading.
Luckily, even without being very interested in Inna’s romantic relationships, there were still plenty of other things I could enjoy. One of the most intriguing storylines within the novel, for me, was the one involving Father Grigory, the man Inna met on the train to St Petersburg near the beginning of the book. If you know your Russian history you will know, or be able to guess, who Father Grigory really was, but if not then I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. I also really liked the violin-making aspect of the story as it was something different and unusual. I took violin lessons myself for a few years when I was younger (though I certainly wasn’t as talented as Inna) so I found it interesting to read about the processes of making and repairing violins.
I’m not sure if I liked Midnight in St Petersburg enough to want to look for more of Vanora Bennett’s novels (I know she has written three or four other historical fiction novels) but I did enjoy learning about a period of Russian history I didn’t know much about.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book