Part Gone with the Wind, part Doctor Zhivago, and thoroughly captivating, Ruslan is the epic story of a destitute young countess in Tsarist Russia who tries every avenue to restore her fortunes.
In glittering St. Petersburg, we meet Countess Alexandra Korvin: beautiful and intelligent, but also unmarried and--thanks to her late spendthrift father--quite penniless. In her polarized society of aristocratic grandeur and crushing poverty, a woman's only option is to marry well.
Alexandra makes her way through St. Petersburg society, attending dazzling balls, lavish dinners, and operas in search of a spouse. She pursues the charming but unattainable politician Rybynsky and spurns the advances of Ulynov, a rakish army captain who falls desperately in love with her. Finally, craving freedom and rebelling against the confines of her life as a woman, she cuts off her hair and joins the army as a man--only to find the ultimate test of her feminine heart.
Rich with decadent trappings of Tsarist splendor and alive with the indomitable spirit of an unforgettable young woman, Ruslan is a novel to savor from first page to last.
Czarist Russia in the 19th century is the setting for an entertaining if improbable historical romance about one indomitable woman's plight in Scrupski's debut novel. Countess Alexandra Korvin, left nearly destitute by the extravagances of her recently deceased father, comes to the desperate realization that the only way to restore her ravaged palace and the ancient Korvin name is to find the appropriate moneyed mate. Scrupski captures the decadent opulence of wealthy Russian aristocracy as well as the numbing poverty of its serfs and peasants as her heroine traipses from one society event to another in search of a man who will marry her. Alexandra finds herself obsessed by her closest friend's intended, the charming Gregor Rybynsky, while inadvertently capturing the heart of a well-known scoundrel, Ulyanov. At the same time, her personal circumstances become more dire and, finding no other way to survive, she disguises herself as a young man and joins Ulyanov's military regiment. Alexandra is inspired by a real-life 19th-century "Cavalry Maiden," Nadezhda Durova, and the author liberally sprinkles both fictional characters from the masterpieces of Russian literature and authentic figures from Russian history throughout her narrative in a device that is awkward at best. The relationship between Alexandra and Ulyanov follows the course of a typical formula romance, with some interesting twists when Alexandra wins fame as a soldier. Although meant to be more spirited and independent than most women of her time, Alexandra never achieves real dimension; instead, her distinctly modern sensibility marks her as a typical romance heroine superimposed on the backdrop of St. Petersburg in its magnificent prime.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 25, 2004
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Excerpt from Ruslan by Barbara Scrupski
There is no food in Russia: wizened peasants, their faces as wrinkled as old apples and as red, kneel on the frozen ground and scrabble with their fingertips at projections, lumps and bumps that might conceal a beet, a carrot, a turnip white and sad as the sky above their heads. But whatever is found is not eaten, rather drunk in the form of clear and bitter alcohol distilled, it seems, from the winter air itself. It burns their throats like liquid ice but warms the stomach and spreads like sleep in their veins until they lie down and dream. They dream of beets as big as houses, edible dwellings whose walls drip sweetness. They dream of eggs as small as pearls, smoky in color, or luminous as fire--a load of treasure contained in the belly of a fish. They dream of snow that stays on the tongue and fills the mouth as sour white cream, and stones that, boiled and halved, reveal a magically edible flesh. They dream of mushrooms. While miles away in icy rooms with ceilings that merge with the sky, seated at snow-covered tables set with ice and silver, the slant-eyed ladies feed on diamonds brought from the luscious south (the Caucasus, Black Sea) and warm their tiny, cold feet against the muscular calves of imperial guards, then, lowering their lashes, dream of something else, of something more than that, for this is not enough (the slap of a stallion's balls against their upturned buttocks).
This is the Russia of the mind, half heard of, half remembered--the detritus of a culture, of a history exploded and drifting like ash across our consciousness, the decades of its greatest century jumbled together, out of their timely order, so that Pushkin (but isn't he dead?), strolling up one of the spectral boulevards in Russia's great white city of the north, nods to Chekhov coming down the other way, tips his hat. So. Imagine St. Petersburg in all its titanic splendor, its icy might. Imagine its windows, myriad rows of light isolated against the winter sky, and imagine that inside one of those windows is a girl who is almost a woman. We see the impoverished slimness of her arms, hear her grunts of effort as she stretches herself toward the whorls and clouds of frozen gold that drift across the ceiling just out of reach above her head and then drops her arms in despair. Dressed in faded black, she might be a servant of this great house, driven to madness by the disparity between its grandeur, its spaciousness and the narrow poverty of her own destiny (a garret room, a sixteen-hour day). Alone in this room, her eyes frozen in intent, she gazes up again at the intricate golden sky. A knife glints in her hand. She tests it against her finger and, finding it sharp, grunts with approval, pushes back her sleeves. What is she doing? Stop her! No!
And indeed, a servant comes rushing into the room to do just that, protesting, weeping, clinging to her skirts, for our young countess, teetering atop a giant ladder, forearms bare as a washerwoman's, is reaching up again about to peel the plated gold from yet another of the ceiling decorations of this once-great home. She has to. There is no food in this house. Praskovia, the house serf who is clinging to her skirts and pleading with her mistress not to further damage the splendor of the palace, has had nothing but black bread and weak tea without jam for days, a consequence of her mistress's careful economy, and if we look around the room, we see that it is empty. The furniture has all been sold.
Countess Alexandra Korvin's father, the old count, has died a year ago, leaving debts as massive as the family's fortunes once had been. For the past year, the year of her mourning, the countess has seen no one--has not attended one ball, one musicale, one tea, one dinner or Christmas party (not to mention has not been seen at the golden Maryinsky sitting in the family box, which has been sold). "What a lovely girl," whispered the rest of Petersburg society when they met at those balls, musicales, and teas, "so gracious, so serious, so willing to observe the proprieties and proper customs--unlike the rest of our youth. Unlike, say, the Bezinsky boy. When his father went, he bent over the bed, not to kiss him, but to assure himself that old Sasha--what a rake!--was really dead. Then he went straight to his club, ordered oysters and champagne, and danced for joy on the dining table among the crystal and the china, kicking it to the floor in crashes of exuberance. The scratches of his boots are still there." They imagined that Countess Alexandra Korvin had been resting in darkened rooms, overwhelmed by her sorrows, that the countess lived in a twilight world of memory and grief, and indeed, when she was seen walking by the Neva, pausing from time to time to regard its dark waters, her face was congested by thought, grim with concentration.