BOOK CLUB – The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp, which is being released in paperback by Picador on October 25th (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

Little K was a prima ballerina, the lover of the last Russian tsar. A woman whose determination brought her into the beds of many members of the imperial family, but whose brilliant future was derailed when Russia as she knew it began to disappear, along with her beloved Tsar Nicholas II, and something where the concubine of the Romanovs was a dangerous thing to be. But perhaps it would be best to let Little K introduce herself in her own words, as this is a story she has been endlessly remembering for the past 50 years:

My name is Mathilde Kschessinska, and I was the greatest Russian ballerina on the imperial stages. But the world I was born to, the world I was bred for, is gone, and all the players in it are also gone – dead, murdered, exiled, walking ghosts. -p. 3

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Devourer of Books

Reviews by Lola

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Near the beginning of the book, Little K makes this somewhat provocative statement  about Nicki’s marriage to Alix. Do you think, based on the events of the book, that she was correct about this?
    And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future – imprisonment and

    a martyr’s death? I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future. -p. 23
  • What do you think was the root of Little K’s determination to be part of the tsar’s life? How did you feel about the way she positioned her son?
  • Do you think that Little K fully understood the causes of the revolution? What helped or hindered her in this?
  • Do you think that Sharp made the causes of the revolution clear to the reader?

12 review copies of The True Memoirs of Little K were provided by Picador in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you!

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34 comments to BOOK CLUB – The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

  • As you know, Jen, I loved the beginning of this book and loved it pretty much until the halfway point/ two thirds of the book. Sharp does some really smart things with such a broad and rather daunting topic like this. She makes it much more accesible by making it anecdotal, by making it about an old woman organizing her thoughts and presenting her point of view with the the generous benefit of hindsight. Little K’s personality really comes through and I think you get to know her enough to tell when you can trust what she has to say and what you know is a little colored and skewed by her massive ego.

    I was really impressed by the authenticity of her voice and the settings and events she describes. Sharp seemed very much into the historical accuracy, so I was thrown for a loop and liked the book much less when she veered off into Vova being the Tsar’s son, and briefly part of the family, etc, etc. After she made everything so real, I found I didn’t have much patience for the fantastical. The last third of the book dragged quite a bit for that. I think I would have felt differently if she had played a little more with the history in the beginning, but by the end it sort of seemed like a different book or one that just interested me less.

    • You know, it is funny, I think I was the only one who didn’t know anything about Little K and Vova already. I assumed it wasn’t proven that her son was the Tsar’s, but I didn’t know just how unlikely it was thought to be, so that veering from reality didn’t bother me as much as it seemed to bother everyone else.

      • Well, I am probably much more ignorant of history than anyone here because I did not know that this was a complete fabrication in the novel! I guess, had I known how improbable it was, it might have bothered me…BUT, it is historical fiction so I always assume that there are things not quite the way they actually happened (although usually authors play with the dialogue and minor characters, not change entire historical references).

    • I was thrown through a loop by that too Nicole. I was fairly sure that there was no historical basis involving the allegation that Vova was the tsar’s son, and I researched that in depth once I finished the book. I don’t think it was necessary for for Sharp to take such liberty, so that did color my enjoyment of the reading in a negative way too.

      • Amy

        I read a biography of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandria a long time ago. I didn’t remember anything about a son by another woman or Vova and I had to stop and really think about the book I read…But I also did some research, too, when I finished. I didn’t understand why Sharp did that with Vova but I don’t think it bothered me as much as Nicole. I wasn’t sure I believed Little K for a while that Vova was the Tsar’s son!

    • I also liked the beginning of the book and the history of the ballet, but I was really put off by the idea that Vova was the Tsar’s son. I get that it is historical fiction, but to devote such an important part of the book to a total fabrication I lost interest in Mathilde.

  • I had the same problem as Nicole, which is why I ultimately put the book down without finishing it. It’s unfortunate, because I was interested to read about the Russian Revolution from Little K’s perspective, but I knew that the liberties taken would grate on me.

  • I am not quite finished with the book – I have about 40 pages to go, but I have read enough to answer most of the questions posed…

    What were your general impressions of the book?
    Overall I enjoyed this book, although I did not really like Little K (I agree with Nicole that she had a massive ego and that Sharp got her voice right). I must admit that there were sections that got a little dry for me – my favorite parts were when Sharp focused on the personalities and less on the politics of the time.

    Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
    I like historical fiction, but I probably would not have chosen this book had it not been for BOOK CLUB.

    Near the beginning of the book, Little K makes this somewhat provocative statement about Nicki’s marriage to Alix. Do you think, based on the events of the book, that she was correct about this?
    And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future – imprisonment and
    a martyr’s death? I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future. -p. 23

    Actually, I think her belief she alone could have changed history was ludicrous – but that statement matched her character perfectly!

    What do you think was the root of Little K’s determination to be part of the tsar’s life? How did you feel about the way she positioned her son?
    I do believe she loved the tsar – although it was a love based in her own narcissism – she saw herself as someone who deserved to be sitting at the side of the tsar, she longed the jewels, the esteem, the attention. Even her time on the stage supported her belief that everyone should focus on her. But ultimately, I do think she loved the man and wanted to only be married to him – she gave up a lot to wait for him. Re: her son – although in today’s world the thought of purposely getting pregnant to entrap a man and to manipulate things to position your son as the leader of your country is abhorrent – it was a common practice at that time in history. She did what she thought she needed to do to achieve her goals and find security for herself and her son. Like many women of the day, she chose to use her female charms to elevate her position in life.

    • Yeah, it was sort of a ridiculous statement, wasn’t it? I think that’s what caught my attention. I suppose if you argue that Alix was a big part of the problem you might get there, but I think that at most she was a match, and an empress who was no more than a dancer from the ballet could have been a match just as easily. That’s part of why I wondered just how much Little K really understood the causes of the revolution. Was it grandiosity, or did she just really not get it.

    • The fact that she thought that she could change history was straight from the chuckle factory for me. Seriously? I think that part of K’s emotional growth was seriously stunted. I think she thought that she grew up and maybe she learned some love through her son, but in all other ways she never stopped grasping for power nor did she ever think that she shouldn’t have what she wanted. It made me think that part of that massive ego might have been mental illness, ie. delusions of grandeur or narcissistic personality disorder. The part where she is desperately searching for her father’s ring so that she can prove her polish royalty or writing those nasty notes to a soon-to-be Empress and expecting her to just walk away from Niki? Straight crazy. The fact that she is still bragging at 100 is just further proof of the madness. Did she learn anything?

      But I also think the story succeeds in being told from the pont of view of a regular person who was indeed living her life while stuf was happening. She wasn’t a historian but someone would have remembered major events in between the things that were of paramount importance to her. How much wealth and power she has accumulated,Niki, Sergei, Andrei, Vova and her dancing.

      • Amy

        I, too, thought several times that Little K may have some mental problems. Her ego was so massive but even more she really thought that she could get whatever she wanted from anyone. She definitely had delusions of grandeur. And, as Nicole pointed out, the notes she sent to the Tsar and the notes about the Empress. The fact that she really didn’t seem to learn, mature or grow and was still bragging when an old woman really made me feel she was a bit nuts.

        Although I think she did love the Tsar, I also think she loved the Romanov’s way of life. SHe said at one poinbt that she moved to Paris instead of Berlin when everyone was leaving Russia because that’s where most of the Romanov family members were living.

      • Nicole, I also thought she had a mental illness/narcissistic personality disorder. And I think you’re right that her emotional growth was severely stunted–she was so childish in the ways that she acted out, like a little kid testing the waters to see how far she could go before being reprimanded. I do think that she honestly loved the tsar, but I couldn’t help but think that she loved the image she had of herself even more.

  • I am a huge historical fiction nerd, 19th century especially, so this was a no-brainer for me. I loved that K was an unreliable narrator. She was endlessly fascinating to me, and though delusional at times, I admired her spirit.

    I think the most interesting thing to observe throughout the novel was the transition from Old World Russia to 20th century Soviet Union, absolute monarchy vs. revolution. Here was a woman who was caught exactly between the two — she was of a lower class, yet because of her unique position as entertainment to royalty, she sided with them and saw herself as one of them. I agree with Wendy about her behavior, though morally corrupt, being the only way for a woman to achieve material success. There is something manic, but kind of inspiring about her determination!

    • I loved her position between the monarchy and the people, I think I commented on that in my review (or at least I meant to!). Such a unique position from which to look at the Russian Revolution, although I wondered at times if she was too sheltered to really ‘get’ what was happening fully.

      • Agreed, she was turning a blind eye to the realities of how the monarchy was impoverishing its subjects. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she was just out-right defending them, in the sense that she truly believed in monarchy, believed that they had the right to all the wealth in the land, and that monarchy was synonymous with Russia itself. In a sense she was right, because the Russia many were so sentimental and nostalgic about did die with the monarchy, but of course the battles for rights and equality were inevitable and had plenty of reason (though often had violent and horrific execution)… it’s such a complex period/place!

        • Definitely! I found myself very sympathetic to the monarchy, knowing the horrors of what would come, but of course even Little K herself chronicled some of the horrors that took place under the monarchy, like that field full of peasants on Niki’s ascension, or the riots that caused a priest to cry that there is no God and no Tsar.

          • Amy

            I felt a lot of sympathy for the monarchy, too but some things such as Bloody Sunday I had some trouble with. But I think when something is such an longstanding part of the country so entrenched with the traditions and the way things are done and then suddenly there are people who want everything to change, its difficult

            • I thought this was an interesting part of the book – obviously, Bloody Sunday was horrific, and history supports that – yet, from Little K’s perspective it barely was worth mentioning…I think she just sort of shrugged it off and thought maybe they could have handled things better, but “oh well” – which is exactly WHY the revolution ultimately occurred. The aristocracy was so above everyone else, they did whatever they wanted to preserve their way of life even if it meant killing thousands.

  • I hate to say it, but this is one of those rare books that I just could not bring myself to finish. I have an interest in the time period, I tend to like this kind of fictional memoir, and the basic storyline sounded very interesting. I just couldn’t get into the style. I was turned off from the beginning. It was like she was trying too hard to give the reader historical context for the events that occurred. Nothing about the way she describes “Peter” sounded organic. I wanted historical fiction, not a history lesson. It did not appeal to me at all once I started reading, and that’s disappointing. I had such high hopes. It’s one of those books I would have picked up at a store, then kept on the shelf for the right day. Maybe that day will still come.

  • I would definitely have read this book regardless of book club, as I have always had a fascination with the Romanovs, but I had never heard about it before it was selected as September’s book.

    I actually do think that Mathilde was correct in her assumption that had she been married to the tsar, the revolution would not have occurred. We will obviously never know whether that is correct, but in the end it would not have mattered who Niki was married to as long as it WASN’T Alexandra. She was so hated by the Russian people and her relationship with Rasputin caused such animosity that I think she is the majority of the reason that the Russian people turned against Niki.

    • I could see that, Stephanie, but with the hardships in Russia, especially during the war, and the previous failed rebellions, do you think Alix was the real problem, or just the last straw? If she WAS the last straw, is it possible that Mathilde could have been as well? Or something completely unrelated to Niki’s wife?

      • There’s no way to really know what role Mathilde would have played in the revolution were she Niki’s wife, or if there would have even been a revolution. And I would be more inclined to say Alix was the final straw, as it would be kind of foolish to put the blame of the revolution squarely on her shoulders. At the same time, I think history could have been vastly different had Niki not married Alix.

        • I’m inclined to agree with you, at least in that history could have been different. I don’t think Mathilde could have prevented the revolution–she’s one person, and there were a lot of things that led to revolution–but she did know how to manipulate and when to back off.

          What stands out for me is that scene at Khodynka Field after Niki and Alix’s coronation where people got trampled to death; Niki’s mother told them to cancel the ball and they went anyway, and then several missteps led to Niki being known as Nicholas the Bloody. Mathilde said, “Niki’s mother had a keep political nose–we had that in common, I would have gotten along with her well (p 113).” I know she’s a narcissist and probably would have loved attending the balls, but I actually can imagine her following the dowager empress’s advice. Things like that make me think that she would have had the political senses to influence how the revolution played out.

      • Amy

        That’s more a long the lines of what I think, Jen. I think Alix added fuel to the fire but the anger and unrest was already there and would have found a place to roost no matter, she was simply an easy target. I think the monarchy was too removed from the people, too distant

        • I agree, Amy – I think the people were looking for someone to blame, and Alix was an easy target. But the revolution was not about who Niki married, but what the Romonavs did to the people. Fairness of any kind (economic, land, etc…) was completely unbalanced. I think eventually when people are held down for too long, they eventually rise up…

    • Amy

      I think that’s a great point, Stephanie. The Tsar was too weak to sya anything but he needed Alix to behave differently. The night in the theater when Vova was there instead of Alexei and the Empress got up from her seat and went into the back, Little K said you could hear the audience hiss…they really, really disliked her. And then the Rasoutin deal.

      But I think the revolution was going to happen sooner or later. I don’t think that Little K woulod have prevented it by being married to the Tsar. Little K had problems with rumors about taking bribes and things like that and because of her Sergei had to resign his office. I think change was inevitable.

  • I don’t think you can blame Alexandra for the fall of the Russian empire. She didn’t help matters, but there had been problems that were being addressed by Nicholas’s grandfather Alexander the II. I think his assassination was the beginning of the end of the dynasty. If anyone should be blamed it should be Nicholas. He was just as deluded as Mathilde living in the past and ignoring the present

    • I agree Nicholas is just as much to blame. He stuck his head in the sand and tried to ignore the issue until there was no turning back. In the end, I have always felt sorry for Alix because she turned into a scapegoat for the Russian people.

  • My apologies for jumping into this so late; I had the and just got home from work.

    I haven’t finished the book yet because I’ve been swamped these last few days, but I’ve finished enough to answer a lot of these questions.

    First impressions: I was tempted to put the book down at first (I initially thought it was all description and no content), but I’m glad I stuck with it. I haven’t had much time to read these past few days, but whenever I do sneak in some reading time, I find myself devouring the book.

    Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club? Honestly? I seriously doubt it. But I’m glad I am reading it. It’s really different from my usual fare, and it’s nice to branch out into historical fiction.

    I guess the others I’ll just answer in responses to some of the other comments since there’s overlap.

  • Well, after several days of being under the weather following a bite from a meat bee which then became infected, I have finally managed to write a somewhat cohesive review of this book:

    Overall, I ended up really liking it!

  • […] Memoirs of Little K is an absorbing read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Several readers in our discussion group for this book disliked Sharp’s inaccuracy of history involving Kschessinska’s son. This […]

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