Sometimes, a beautiful cover and an intriguing title are all it takes to pique my interest in a book. Such was the case with The Last Russian Doll, the debut novel by Kristen Loesch. My knowledge of Russia, its history, and its culture are fairly limited. Of course, I know the major musical and literary works and the turbulent history of the past century—not to mention the horrific war against Ukraine now—but I was excited to get a closer look through the lens of historical fiction. The Last Russian Doll spans the 1910s through 1940s, plus the early 1990s, offering a sweeping view of Russia and its people over the 20th century. It is a beautifully written and powerful novel, and I loved my ARC of it so much that I’ve already ordered a physical copy for my personal library.
Special thanks to the publicists at Penguin Random House and to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!
In the summer of 1991, after her mother passes away, Rosie leaves England to return to her homeland of Russia. She’s there to help an elderly author find a person he hasn’t seen in decades, but she’s also looking for answers about her own family’s history—including the murder of her father and sister 14 years ago.
Going back 75 years, in 1916, newly married Tonya meets a political idealist named Valentin. The two have a torrid affair, but their relationship over the decades that follow will be filled with ups and downs, from political upheaval to famine to loss.
Spanning nearly all of the 20th century, The Last Russian Doll uncovers family secrets and identity against the backdrop of Russia’s tempestuous political landscape.
The Last Russian Doll is instantly captivating, both due to its gorgeous language and the two distinct storylines. In summer 1991, Rosie’s first-person chapters unfold like a mystery as she uncovers clues in her family’s history. Who killed her dad and older sister, and why? And why is it that, the more she learns about the missing Kukolka the elderly author needs her help finding, the more she accidentally learns about her own unknown ancestors?
The other storyline starts in 1916, with third-person narratives following both Tonya and Valentin. Tonya is only 17, recently married to a wealthy and powerful man; Valentin is young, too, but already a leader within the growing Bolshevik party. The two come from completely different backgrounds, yet they’re drawn to each other and quickly start an affair. Things only grow more and more complicated between Tonya and Valentin. They’re torn apart, brought back together, torn apart again. Over the course of more than 30 years, we see how their lives unfold against Russia’s turbulent backdrop.
Naturally, The Last Russian Doll is a fairly political book. Valentin is an idealist and active member of the Bolshevik party, loudly proclaiming his support of the lower classes gaining more power. His role within the party and support of its actions changes over time, and indeed, the party does take some increasingly dark and dangerous turns. While Valentin’s views may have been more pure, the party certainly becomes problematic and violent, with their end goal justifying the means. Valentin goes through a significant transformation over the years.
Tonya, too, changes a lot from her teenaged self to her adult self. She goes from a sheltered life with little autonomy to one that requires her strength and perseverance. She learns how to make her own life and protect those she loves. Tonya is a fascinating character, and one that I only grew to like more as her story progressed.
The past timeline spans decades before ending on a cliffhanger. What happened to these characters next? What was their end? I do love how it all comes together by the novel’s close, but I definitely cried at some parts.
Rosie’s chapters are about putting the puzzle pieces together, sometimes in surprising ways. Some of my theories were ultimately proven wrong; some mysteries never feel fully resolved, like it’s a secret the past will continue holding onto. While a couple climatic reveals felt a bit underwhelming, I like how Rosie is eventually able to move forward with her life.
The Last Russian Doll weaves in themes of lifelike dolls and the secrets they hold (in their heads!), the unexpected ways people, even strangers, can impact your life, and mental health issues that arise from harrowing trauma.
One final element that struck me in reading The Last Russian Doll is the inclusion of short, one- or two-page fairy tales periodically throughout the book. Each one is mesmerizing and magical, inspiring wonder but also connecting to the main plot of the novel. As the author states at the end of the book, each story can be interpreted literally, in connection with the main characters, and as related to the larger political sphere of the time. Incredible!
The Last Russian Doll is a stunning debut, incorporating both the great Russian epic and succinct fairy tales, and combining both intimate relationships and the larger sociopolitical landscape. It is intricate, thoughtful, and beautifully written, and could be one of my favorite novels of 2023. I already look forward to reading more from Kristen Loesch.
Get the Book
You can buy The Last Russian Doll here – it’s available as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Last Russian Doll by Kristen Loesch|
|Number of Pages||416|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||March 14, 2023|
A haunting, epic novel about betrayal, revenge, and redemption that follows three generations of Russian women, from the 1917 revolution to the last days of the Soviet Union, and the enduring love story at the center.
In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land…
… a young girl lived happily in Moscow with her family: a sister, a father, and an eccentric mother who liked to tell fairy tales and collect porcelain dolls.
One summer night, everything changed, and all that remained of that family were the girl and her mother.
Now, a decade later and studying at Oxford University, Rosie has an English name, a loving fiancé, and a promising future, but all she wants is to understand–and bury–the past. After her mother dies, Rosie returns to Russia, armed with little more than her mother’s strange folklore–and a single key.
What she uncovers is a devastating family history that spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s purges, and beyond.
At the heart of this saga stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions—and love for an idealistic man—will set off a sweeping story that reverberates across the century.
About the Author
Kristen Loesch grew up in San Francisco. She holds a BA in History, as well as a Master’s degree in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her debut historical novel, THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL, was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award under a different title. After a decade living in Europe, she now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.
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