Taking place before The Russian Concubine, The Jewel of St. Petersburg tells the story of Valentina Ivanova and Jens Friis as they meet during the fall of the Russian monarchy. Valentina is the privileged daughter of a wealthy Russian minister and Jens is a Danish engineer, working to improve the overall water quality in St. Petersburg. The two are immediately drawn to each other, even as their world is falling into chaos around them.
Well, first things first. At least I know where this title came from--The Russian Concubine still doesn't make sense to me!
I found this to be a page-turner. It took me a couple of days, but really I read it in just a couple of sittings. Even though I knew how this was going to end up--an irritation of prequels--I still wanted to know how they got where they did.
Jens was wonderful. The big, gentle, Viking-looking type is right up my alley. You know he could get all bad-ass if he wanted to, but it doesn't cross his mind until someone he loves is threatened. He loves Russia but still sees that there are great flaws in the system and in the tsar. He understands where the revolutionaries are coming from but he believes their methods are completely wrong. He believes in working within the system rather than causing a national bloodbath. In his own small way, he's trying to improve the lives of the Russian poor. They keep getting sick because they don't have clean water to drink, and those forced to live in basements frequently get flooded out. By improving the water delivery system and the sewage system, he's making everyone's lives better. When injuries happen on his job sites, and they often do due to lack of funding for proper safety procedures, he does his best to get the injured men proper medical attention. He'll pay for it out of his own pocket if he has to, even giving the worker enough food to keep him and his family alive until he can return to work. Who wouldn't love a guy like this?
I had a little bit of a harder time with Valentina. It's been a little while since I read The Russian Concubine, so I don't remember her character exactly. But she didn't feel completely true to what she becomes, if that makes any sense. If this had been the first book Furnivall wrote, I would have loved her unreservedly. She's so strong and so determined to do what she feels like she needs to. In the very opening pages of the book, her sister Katya receives a bad injury. Valentina feels responsible. She goes out of her way to care for her sister and bring as much happiness to her life as possible. She tries to be an obedient daughter, but sometimes what is asked of her goes against her own strong morals. That's when she rebels. She has to remain true to herself no matter what.
The relationship between these two unfolding against the background of the Russian Revolution kept me turning pages. It was such a chaotic time and no one was safe. I haven't read a lot set during this time period, but this book left me wanting to read more of it.
I really, really wish that this book had been written first. I hated knowing what was going to happen. I think it even kept me from getting quite as attached to the characters as I could have.
I got really confused about what was going on and when it was taking place right around Chapter 3. They meet, but a few pages later it sounded like they had met before, and then I was trying to figure out whether I had just read their first meeting or their second meeting.... You get the idea. There was even a date printed at the beginning of the chapter. I still don't have that straightened out in my head, but I decided it was ultimately unimportant and let it go by the end of the chapter. That could be just me, but that doesn't usually happen.
For strong characters with a great love story in a chaotic time, give this a try. I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction.
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