Jewish Journal

Probing the mysterious fate of the Romanovs

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Apr. 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Over the many years I’ve spent bumping around the book business, I have introduced my wife, Ann, to a great many literary lions and lionesses, but nothing quite compares to the evening when we first met Dora Levy Mossanen at a book-signing for John Rechy at Dutton’s in Brentwood.

Not long before that memorable event, Ann had taken along a copy of Dora’s superheated historical novel, “Harem,” on a Hawaiian vacation, and our hours by the pool were punctuated with the lively passages that Ann read aloud to me. By the end of the trip, Dora was among her favorite authors, and soon afterward, when it was my turn to read “Harem” — and then another Mossenen novel, “Courtesan” — she was one of mine, too. And so, when I happened to meet Dora at Dutton’s, I immediately steered her across the crowded courtyard and presented her to my wife: “Meet the author of ‘Harem,’ ” I was proud to say.

I later learned that Dora’s literary gifts are coded in her DNA — her grandfather, Habib Levy, was a distinguished scholar and the author of a comprehensive history of the Jews of Iran. She was born in Israel, and among her earliest memories are the singing and dancing in the streets that greeted the declaration of the Jewish state. Her family returned to Iran when she was 9 years old, and they arrived in the midst of the coup against Mossadegh. With the Islamic Revolution and the fall of the shah in 1979, she was forced to leave Iran and settled with her children in Los Angeles, where she enrolled in the writing program at USC and later established herself as “an Isabel Allende of Persia,” in the words of Amy Ephron. It’s no surprise that history marks her fiction as it has marked her life.

We have since become close friends of Dora and her husband, Nader — I could write a separate paean to him! — and their whole beautiful family. At my invitation, Dora agreed to contribute book reviews to The Jewish Journal on a regular basis. A couple of years ago, when my office co-workers and I sat down for our holiday lunch at Spago, Dora was seated at the next table with the members of her long-time writer’s group, and that’s when I first learned she was hard at work on another historical novel.

Dora Levy Mossanen’s new book is “The Last Romanov” (SourceBooks: $14.99). Like the best-sellers “Harem” and “Courtesan,” Mossanen’s latest novel is deeply rooted in an exotic time and place, ornamented with the observed detail that comes from her exhaustive but discerning research, suffused with authentic historical drama, and populated with irresistible men and women who come fully alive on the page, all of which are her trademarks as a novelist. For those of us who have been waiting for Mossanen’s next book with pleasure and anticipation, our patience has now been rewarded.

“The Last Romanov” focuses on Darya Borodina Spiridova, a richly imagined character set among the real-life figures who populated the court of the last Tsar of Russia. The unforgettable Darya is adorned with a miniature Fabergé egg that contains both a scent and a secret, attended by butterflies who may be the restless spirits of murdered Romanovs, and equipped with one eye that resembles “an orb of cracked opal” — “Not the type of milky opal mined from the crevices of the earth,” Mossanen writes, “but a lucid golden shade, defiant and full of mystery.”

These qualities, of course, are found in Darya herself, whom we first meet at the age of 104 as she is summoned to a convocation of Russian aristocrats who, like her, are still haunted by the slaughter of the imperial family during the Bolshevik Revolution. We are soon transported back in time to the embattled Romanov court and the origins of the mystery that Darya will spend her life trying to solve — the fate of the Tsar’s son, heir to the throne of Russia, who may or may not have died along with his parents and siblings on that bloody day in Ekaterinburg.

Darya, in fact, is an eyewitness to history, but she sees the events and personalities at close hand and in intimate detail. As a young woman, she is summoned to the Romanov palace to attend to the Tsarina. “Darya seems to possess a healing touch,” the empress observes. “Perhaps she might heal me, too.” As we are drawn back and forth between contemporary Russia and the turn of the 20th century, we come to realize that Darya possesses a unique ability to see glimmers of light in the thickets of invention and fabrication that have come to surround the Romanovs: “There’s so much myth surrounding your life, Darya,” one character tells her. “You need to tell me the truth.” Thus begins Mossanen’s contemplation of one of the great and enduring enigmas of the troubled 20th century, the destiny of the royal family of Russia.

Mossanen embroiders and embellishes the historical mystery with fascinating details, some real and some imagined — high ceremony, court intrigue, sexual adventure and the rhythms of what passes for ordinary life in an imperial court. She conjures up sights and smells that are sometimes strange and eerie, sometimes sensual and intoxicating, sometimes comical. At moments, Mossanen manages to do all of it at once, as when she describes the ornate baptismal ceremony for the Tsarevich and pauses to observe how “the screaming Tsarevich lets loose a stream of urine on the ecclesiastic pendant of rubies and emeralds Father Yanishev wears on his habit,” and then quotes the cleric: “He is now doubly sanctified.”

She introduces a few inventions of her own to “The Last Romanov.” Darya befriends a Jewish artist named Avram Bensheimer and introduces his work to the Tsar and Tsarina, who are so impressed by his artistry that they overlook his Jewishness and commission him to paint a portrait of the Tsarevich. It’s a romantic subplot that strikes sparks between Darya and Avram, but it also allows Mossanen to show us one of the uglier aspects of imperial Russia, a place where anti-Semitic violence was state policy and Jewish lives were always at risk. “I could call you Opal-Eyed Queen,” says Bensheimer, “since like the biblical Queen Esther, you, too, came to our defense.” The scene is set for a sly joke that Darya plays on the royal family — Bensheimer has painted a Madonna and Child for them, and Jesus is modeled after the Tsarevich, but they do not suspect that his model for the Madonna is “White Thighs Paulina, an unknown proletariat whore.”

Mossanen brings the tale she tells in “The Last Romanov” to a grand resolution, and it would be cruel of me to spoil the reader’s pleasure by hinting at the denouement. Suffice it to say that more than one mystery is solved as a master storyteller works her powerful magic yet again.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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