The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak, an expressive novel about Polish dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska

One can rely on Stachniak (The Winter Palace, 2012) for engaging, well-researched fictional portraits of dynamic historical women. As her story of renowned Polish ballerina and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska unfolds against the politically troubled backdrop of late nineteenth- through mid-twentieth-century Europe, readers become both active participants in her continual pursuit of creative excellence in dance and captivated spectators.

Born in Minsk to traveling professional dancers, Bronia’s early life and rigorous training at Saint Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School are dominated by her older brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, depicted as an artistic genius whose daring performances motivate her—and overshadow her own talents. Around this time, ballet is moving from its formal, classical roots into more fluid forms of expression, and Vaslav and Bronia are part of this controversial transformation.

As she emerges as an innovative artist in her own right, Bronia’s working relationship with impresario Serge Diaghilev—founder of the Ballets Russes, her brother’s probable lover, and for whose company she dances and choreographs in Paris and elsewhere—is portrayed with skill. With striking depth of feeling, Stachniak brings us firsthand into the moments when Bronia embodies the onstage personas she creates.

The novel also illustrates her family life, including marital discord, Vaslav’s increasing mental instability, and the value of motherhood. A memorable literary rendering of a remarkable woman’s life.

The Chosen Maiden will be published by Doubleday Canada next Tuesday (464pp, trade pb, $18 US, or $24 in Canada). This review was submitted for publication in Booklist‘s January 1st issue.  While the publisher is Canadian, the book is being distributed in the US, so American readers shouldn’t have trouble obtaining it.

Book review, with notes: Kate Alcott’s The Hollywood Daughter

Alcott (A Touch of Stardust, 2015) returns to mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles with her novel about a young woman’s emotional and cultural awakening.

Jessica “Jesse” Malloy, who narrates in a vibrant voice, feels awkward growing up as the daughter of a fun-loving Selznick Studio publicist and a reserved Catholic woman who resists Hollywood’s sinful influences. Jesse has always hero-worshipped Ingrid Bergman, and when the beautiful Swedish actress stars in The Bells of St. Mary’s, which is filmed at Jesse’s convent school, Catholics’ admiration for her seems boundless. However, when Bergman’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini is discovered, the situation horrifies Hollywood’s morality police and shatters Jesse’s illusions.

Alcott uses a fast-paced, efficient writing style and creates a believable portrait of a teenager navigating high school, potential romances, and her complicated world during the McCarthy years. The portions set in 1959, as Jesse returns home after a long absence, provide emotional closure. Jesse’s parents, teachers, and Bergman herself are all sketched with subtlety. Another honest look at the real stories behind Hollywood’s glamorous veneer.

The Hollywood Daughter is published today in hardcover and by Doubleday. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist‘s January 1st issue.

Some other notes:

This novel will work well as a YA crossover title. In fact, I can’t recall reading another adult-level historical novel that placed so much emphasis on its heroine’s school experiences, which include Jesse’s relationships with her teachers (who fortunately aren’t stereotyped) and her participation on a debate team. I think it could have been categorized as YA if not for the sections at the beginning and end. Sarah Hunter at Booklist  recommended the book for YA readers and appended a note to that effect at the end of the review. If anyone else has read it, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

For a perspective on how the novel’s themes relate to contemporary times, see Kate Manning’s review in the Washington Post, which was published yesterday.

A storyteller at work: Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World

In 1880, after following his lady-love, Fanny Osbourne, halfway across the globe, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lives in San Francisco, waiting for her impending divorce from her unfaithful husband and hoping the money he earns from his scribblings will support a wife and family.

John Carson, his landlady’s husband, is a longtime maritime man, and as they warm themselves by the fire and amble along the hilly streets, Carson recounts episodes from his adventurous life––a subject the historical Stevenson had planned to write about, but never did.

With abundant wit and mellifluous prose, expressed using generously long sentences, Doyle transports readers to diverse lands, including the Borneo jungle, Sydney, war-torn America, and a haunted Irish village. He also perceptively imagines the young Stevenson, a man soaking up new friendships and life lessons while sharpening his talents.

It’s a wondrous sort of paradox that a fiction nested inside another fiction can convey many poignant truths. Doyle’s irresistible novel, which practically begs to be read aloud, is a triumphant ode to the power of storytelling.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is published tomorrow by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in hardcover and .  I wrote this review for Booklist, and the final version appeared in the 2/1 issue.

Some other notes:

– This review assignment arrived last October, at which point I hadn’t heard anything about the book. I don’t always have the best luck with novels about explorers or adventurers, so it was a pleasant surprise. There’s a lot of story and wisdom included in this comparatively short novel (it’s 240pp long).

– Unfortunately, I don’t find the cover art all that inspiring; maybe the paperback will be an improvement.

– This novel would be a good fit for admirers of Stevenson’s own works, as well as anyone who enjoyed Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, which covers his relationship with his wife, Fanny Osbourne.