I have always been fascinated by tales of the Russian Revolution. An entire nation, caught between east and west, jumps several stages of development to try and create a workers’ paradise only to erupt in terrifying violence. How did anyone survive the bloodshed and the starvation and disease and the cold? Whenever I see the Revolution mentioned in a book’s description, I jump at the chance to read it, more often than not. Unfortunately for me, this doesn’t always work out and in the case of Freda Lightfoot’s The Amber Keeper, the Revolution was used as a more-exciting-than-usual setting for a fairly prosaic family drama/romance.
The Amber Keeper is narrated by Abbie Myers, who returns to the Lake District of England after the surprising suicide of her mother. Abbie was in disgrace for years, having run off with a Frenchman and having a child out of wedlock—a big deal in 1963. As no one else in her family will talk to her without starting a row, Abbie questions her grandmother, Millie, about her mother. Millie is reluctant to say more than that she adopted Kate from an orphanage in London in 1920. Abbie is persistent and we soon get to learn about Millie’s experiences as a governess for the Belinsky family in St. Petersburg from 1911 to 1917.
Millie’s story is periodically interrupted as Lightfoot tells us more about what’s going on with Abbie as she and her daughter try to settle in at the family house. Abbie resurrects her mother’s jewelry story and fends off her brother’s attempts to sell it and her new competition. Millie’s story is much more interesting. It was always a relief to head back to Russia, even though Abbie is a better than average protagonist. But how can her story compete with Millie’s? Not only is Millie a stranger in a strange land, she also has to deal with an utterly diabolical mistress, Countess Olga Belinsky. (Though it should be Belinskaya, in proper Russian, right?)
Olga is a pathological liar, greedy and lustful. (In fact, she embodies several of the Seven Deadlies.) For the sake of the children, Millie stays on, even though Olga tries to steal the love of Millie’s life and actually lands the poor woman in a Bolshevik prison later in the novel. Once Millie finally tells the family where Kate came from, it’s clear just why she stayed in St. Petersburg far longer than she should have. Olga is a much more electrifying character than this book deserves, to be honest. A novel from her perspective would have been amazing—assuming a reader could stay in her head long enough without getting thoroughly fed up with the woman. But then, readers stay with Scarlet O’Hara for the length of Gone With the Wind, so maybe it could work.
I muddled through The Amber Keeper fairly well, but I did not like the tacked on ending at all. It felt like Lightfoot was trying to end things with a bang, rather than letting this story be a quiet one of family reconciliation.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 December 2014.