Sixteen-year-old Lydia and her gorgeous mother Valentina have been living in Junchow, China, ever since they were exiled from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. All is not well for these two women; Valentina drinks too much and Lydia must steal just to pay the rent. Her thievery places her in danger with a terrifying underground gang, from which a young Chinese Communist, Chang An Lo, saves her. That doesn’t solve Lydia’s problems, however, and they only escalate as she realizes how deeply she feels for Chang An Lo and that her mother is falling into deeper and deeper disgrace.
There are a lot of things wrong with this novel. The story has a great premise in theory and one which should really appeal to me. I love the idea of a forbidden love. Here, though, it doesn’t work. For one thing, I didn’t believe in the connection between Lydia and Chang An Lo. I don’t know if I can isolate why. I just didn’t feel that they could have possibly known each other well enough to risk their lives in such a way. In fact, I felt a little bit like Lydia was a spoiled brat, despite the fact that she’s poor and knows it. She just must have her way all the time. As an example, she asks her mother’s lover for a rabbit, even though her mother despises it and they can’t afford to eat in the first place let alone buy greens for a rabbit. She insists on charging off into the dangerous section of town, only to get people killed and risk the life of a friend. She makes bad decisions and manipulates adults to get what she wants. She’s fiery, but fiery in a way that is not appealing. The one aspect of Lydia’s character I did like was the relationship with Alfred, which I thought grew in an organic and believable way.
This book also has far too many characters. It’s not just about Lydia and Chang An Lo. It’s about Lydia’s mother and her various paramours and her friend Polly and Polly’s parents and her teacher Theo and his Chinese lover and a variety of thugs and aristocrats and communists besides. It gets confusing and I wished it had been streamlined. The book just felt too long, like the story went on and on. And to top it all off, it’s open-ended, so the reader is forced to buy the sequel if she wants to continue the story. I feel like a warning should come with books like this.
I did like the setting; historical fiction in China is harder to come by than, say, historical fiction in England, and I appreciated that. There are little bits of history thrown in, like the origins of that rabbit’s name, Sun Yat-sen, and the history of the Communist movement in China. These, however, were not enough to rescue the plodding plot and unsympathetic characters.
Finally, a minor point, which someone who works in publishing could clarify for me. Since Lydia and her mother are Russian, sometimes they use Russian phrases in their speech. Unfortunately, these are spelled out somewhat phonetically, and almost always would probably give the reader the wrong pronunciation of the word. Is there a reason that she couldn’t have just used the cyrillic, aside from the fact that most people can’t understand it? If anything, it would look even more exotic. It also felt very tacked on to me, as in, they’d say “Thank you” and then the author would add spasibo and it just threw me out of the book. Though my Russian has greatly degraded, it was once fluent and sometimes it even took me a while to figure out what words she was trying to use. Since the overall writing isn’t that good to start with, mundane and choppy, this was not an incentive to keep going. I also hated how the book’s title didn’t match its content – there are no Russian concubines in this book.
Honestly, I don’t think I’d recommend The Russian Concubine. I wouldn’t have finished if I didn’t have to. You don’t need to start at all!