Egan has based this graceful and resonant account of an aristocratic young woman's ordeal during the Russian revolution (mainly from 1916-1922) on interviews with Elena Shatagina, who lived in New York from 1928 and died here in 1978.
"You don't comprehend the destruction of a social order when you are a part of it; you stumble, you struggle, and you look back." Yet far more grievous than the obliteration of trappings, or even the ethic of class, is the corrosion of hope and brave spirits, the severing of loving ties: "When the family circle breaks you can't mend it--you've lost something." The story begins before the Revolution when Elena's parents--her thoughtful father, a Finance Ministry official, and her gentle blueblood mother--both oppose Elena's marriage to Captain Ivan Shatagina, grandson of a serf; but they capitulate in order to keep the obdurate Elena within the family's enclosure of love and loyalty.
Then come the turmoil, dislocation, and terror during the collapse of the regime and civil war--as Elena's family joins packs of ragged refugees inching ahead of slaughter. Ivan becomes more distant and withdrawn as he ponders the choice that has placed him apart from the Bolsheviks and the "proletarian expediency: Elena's family--starving, despairing, root--is dessicated by expedience: "One thinks in bursts rather than in streams. If you can manage the next pot of soup. . . ." And Elena bears a child, Anya, while Ivan, a member of the Volunteer Army, rejoins the family from time to time in their flight. "Fear was making us deformed, a community of the demented." Eventually Ivan and Elena are forced to leave baby and family, taking a refugee ship to safety--and Elena's bitterness and grief well up at the loss of Anya, her family, and the tormented Ivan's apparent withdrawal of his love. But after a brief, flushed friendship with Ivan's elegant commander Grigory--a brilliant, forlorn, solitary remnant of a time gone--Elena returns to Ivan, realizing "the circle had closed and what it contained was us." A buoyant, intelligent, intensely moving odyssey--a cut above the many similar Russian-Revolution romances.