From Publishers Weekly
Political intrigue and personal jealousy thrive under Stalin's dread stare in this lively new novel by veteran author Charyn (The Isaac Quartet
; Death of a Tango King
; etc.). Ivan Azerbaijan is a poor boy from the mountains who comes to Moscow with a traveling theater troupe to build sets for a new production of King Lear
. When the theater troupe's leader is incapacitated, the six-foot-six Ivanushka, or "Little Ivan," is thrust into the role of Lear and discovers a talent for acting that makes the humble production the toast of Moscow's elite. Ivanushka attracts so much attention that Joseph Stalin himself descends to the tiny theater. Impressed, Stalin releases the sultry starlet Valentina Michaelson from house arrest to play Cordelia to Ivanushka's Lear. Soon Ivanushka, in love with Michaelson, finds himself surrounded by spies, apparatchiks and power brokers who negotiate to stay in Stalin's favor—a dangerous game, for inevitably Stalin "falls upon whatever person he admires." Charyn's Moscow is full of personalities, from the elusive Michaelson and the manipulative Vladimir Rustaveli, who takes Ivanushka under his wing, to the steely and erratic Stalin. Throughout, Charyn keeps the intrigue front and center—who will be arrested next, who will sleep with whom—but the unconsummated, wordy love affair between Michaelson and Ivanushka eventually stalls some of the book's momentum.
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Prolific Charyn's historical novel is set primarily in Moscow during the 1930s--the era of greatest paranoia in the Soviet Union. The romance of the subtitle is between two actors: Ivan Azerbaijan, a Georgian, actually, who takes Moscow by storm while acting in a bowdlerized version of King Lear;
and Valentina Michaelson, who had incurred Stalin's wrath by abandoning the Soviet Union for Hollywood. Despite her return, she is exiled to a Mosfilm back lot. Besides Stalin, major Soviet political and cultural figures of the era also play key roles in the story as the intrigue, which left many Muscovites of that time wondering if they too would succumb to the terror, is firmly played out in the story line. Charyn's depiction of the madness of the times is so on-target that the reader undeniably senses the characters' paranoia and confusion. Most important, we see in this powerful novel that evil is neither banal nor sensational but comes in many guises. Frank CasoCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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