Tuesday, April 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow is a fine new work of historical biographical fiction. I love stories about artists, particularly writers, and their significant others, so I was eager to read this even though I’ve never read Turgenev’s work.

The novel sensitively portrays a love triangle in a way that is poignant without seeming tragic.

Pauline Viardot is a famous nineteenth century European opera star. She marries young, to Louis Viardot, who collects art, translates literature, and hunts obsessively. He’s old enough to be her father. They were introduced by George Sand, who is pleased that Pauline will have a spouse who will support and protect her. Louis acts as Pauline’s agent, shepherding her career. Pauline is fond of him but not in love with him, while he loves her with all his heart.

Her operatic touring brings her to St. Petersburg, where she is an enormous success. Ivan Turgenev attends one of her performances and is smitten. A handsome, young Russian aristocrat, Ivan lives the idle useless life he despises. At first, I found him a bit annoying—complaining that his mother is not quick enough with his allowance while criticizing her for living off the serfs they own. (Eventually though, he will become an advocate for serfs and free his own.)  He hangs around Pauline, inserting himself into her circle, fawning. She tries to treat him as merely a friend. However, before long, she can’t do without his devoted presence.

Ivan’s passion for Pauline is all-consuming. Yet he understands that she’s married and pursues her with an almost chivalric idealized love. He’s such a pleasant fellow, and so caring a friend to Pauline, that her husband realizes the best way to defuse the situation is to befriend him as well. 

The platonic phase of their relationship can only last so long. Eventually, Pauline and Ivan give into their desire for one another.

For the rest of their lives, the Viardots and Ivan form an odd threesome. They are inseparable in spirit, but not in fact. Pauline goes off alone at times for her career. And Ivan returns to Russia to claim his inheritance when his mother dies. There, he’s arrested for his radical positions. He’s placed under house arrest, unable to leave Russia. He and Pauline (and, at times, Louis) write to one another, though their letters are constrained by the knowledge that censors are reading them.

The politics, epidemics, and upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century influence the progress of their lives, but don’t change the way they feel. Eventually, the three are reunited. Louis, for the most part, swallows his jealousy and possessiveness to smooth the way for Pauline. In turn, Ivan never presses his luck by trying to separate husband and wife. The author manages to make all the characters sympathetic. The triangle succeeds because they all carefully play their roles.

Pauline is the artistic star of the novel. Ivan’s writing career is alluded to but is not central. By the end of his life, he is successful and acclaimed, but we never see him suffering for his art the way Pauline is shown suffering for hers. 

The writing is beautiful and I learned a good deal about the life and times of Pauline Viardot. Now I have to read Fathers and Sons.

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of Viardot but her life sounds fascinating enough for me to put this on my tbr list.