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A Daughter of the Nobility by Natasha Borovsky (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $16.95; 512 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Linda Simon | Simon, author of several biographies, is at work on a history of the year 1906. and

Tatyana Silomirskaya, born into the Russian aristocracy in 1897, god-daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, dear friend of his daughters, has a privileged vantage point from which to view the cataclysmic events of Russia in the early 20th Century. The Russo-Japanese War, Bloody Sunday, the establishment of the Duma, World War I, the overflow of the monarchy, the massacre of the Romanovs: Russia's suffering and strife provide the background for Tatyana's own story.

It is the story of a willful and determined young woman, who dreams of becoming a physician but is thwarted by the exigencies of political upheaval and by the proscriptions of her own station. Reared to become a decorative partner for a wealthy nobleman, she instead trains as a nurse and finds her place at the front, administering anesthesia and tending grisly wounds. Her heart belongs to her cousin Stefan, her blood brother in childhood, and then her lusty fiance. Stefan, tall, dark, handsome, and virile, is the hero of the stock romance novel; and, unfortunately, Tatyana emerges as no more than a predictable heroine.

Natasha Borovsky, herself the daughter of a Russian pianist who taught the nephews of the tsar, boasts a background that enables her to inform this novel with color and historical accuracy. What she does not give us, however, are characters we can believe in. Tatyana frequently faints and needs to be revived with smelling salts. Stefan frequently pouts and needs to be soothed by a kiss on his velvety lips. When Tatyana believes he has been killed, she succumbs to the attentions of the kind but dull Alexis Holveg, her former tutor and 14 years her senior. She marries the devoted Alexis and bears his child; but Stefan (can anyone but Christopher Reeve play his part) returns, understandably out of sorts. Braving death, he has searched across Russia for his beloved, only to find her ensconced in a bourgeois apartment with her new family. She must divorce, he says, and run away with him.

She demurs, leaving to nurse her son. Meanwhile, Stefan talks with her servant, and quickly comes to realize that he asks too much. They will be brother and sister, dear friends forever. He will help to guide her son. Within months, he is engaged to a beautiful heiress. The passions on which the novel is built dissipate in moments.

At times, Borovsky tends to summarize bits of history awkwardly: "Since 1905, England and France have pumped millions into Russia's economy," one character informs us. "Industrialization has been rapid. Russians are splendid engineers." And Tatyana is too often given to such passionate thoughts as, "My Christian ethic revolted. If no single individual was responsible, then all must be. Humanity bore the collective guilt for war." The novel is undeniably panoramic, but it skims the surface of history when it might have allowed us a fresh and moving view of the Soviet Union's turbulent past.

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