Revolutionary Spirit

Author Janet Fitch ’78 storms the barricades with new novel on the Russian Revolution.

By Angie Jabine ’79 | May 24, 2018

It took me a solid week to read all 800 pages of Janet Fitch’s third and latest novel, The Revolution of Marina M. (Little Brown). It’s an epic tale of St. Petersburg during the Russian revolution, replete with bloody demonstrations, warring ideologies, unthinkable betrayals, and a brave new regime that quickly turns as brutal as the monarchy it destroyed.

This monumental story is narrated by a young poet named Marina Makarova. Reared in bourgeois comfort, she has no idea how to live like the masses, and what sticks with me a month later is her horrified introduction to roaches, fleas, and bedbugs—and her even greater horror when she learns that her fellow slum dwellers repel the vermin by putting the legs of their beds in buckets of kerosene. “Bozhe moi, was that what they were doing?” she thinks. “I hoped the neighbors didn’t smoke in bed. Now I was glad we slept in our clothes. It would make for an easier getaway.”

The Revolution of Marina M. has drawn a lot of critical attention, not least because Janet’s two previous novels generated so much media heat. White Oleander, her 1999 story of a Los Angeles teenager bouncing between her troubled mother and foster care, was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and became a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer in 2002. Paint It Black, her 2006 follow-up novel, focused on two women grieving for the same man. With its psychological acuity, sexual frankness, and lacerating turns of phrase, it was enthusiastically received and also eventually adapted to the screen.

But after these two novels came silence as she plunged into more than a decade of research on Revolution. “I had no idea the book would take 10 years,” she says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I might not have started it if I had known.”

Although Reed played an essential role in the novel’s genesis, she always knew she would write about Russia. “I had a Cold War girlhood. I used to watch all the spy shows. I saw Dr. Zhivago on the wide screen, with the little train going across the vast expanse—high drama!” she recalls. “When I was in junior high, I started reading Dostoevsky. I was a malcontent—I was a total Reedie even then. My father put Crime and Punishment into my hands. That’s my world. The depth of the passion and the seriousness and the claustrophobia—Dostoevsky just spoke to me.” 

In her first month at Reed, in a freshman humanities conference with art historian Prof. Peter Parshall [art history 1971–2000], she dismissed one of his assertions as “bullshit.” Instead of ejecting her from the room, he challenged her: “Why do you think that? Support your claim.” She was amazed. “Wow, this guy was actually listening to me! This was a place where you could be as smart as you were.”

Other professors who stand out in her memory include Ed Segel [history 1973–2011], Kaspar Locher [German 1950–88], and Owen Ulph [history 1944–79], whose Russian history classes were especially unforgettable. “That guy was more eccentric than any student could possibly have been,” she says. “He’d sit back with his green boots on the conference table and say, ‘If you bore me, you’re going to get a C!’ He loved the Mongol invasions—he would say, ‘Oh, the Mongols, they were men! They cooked their meat under their saddles.’”

As part of a student exchange program, she spent the summer before her senior year in what was then called Leningrad, staying in a dormitory with other Westerners. “We had our KGB minders, our tour guides,” she recalls. “You had random encounters on the street but it was very, very clear that you were not Russian. Everyone wore gray and brown and nobody cared about fashion. You’d see women on the beach in their bras and panties. I don’t remember restaurants or clubs. People would go to somebody’s room, drink vodka, and play guitar . . . They were super–culturally aware. Your bus driver might bust into some Pushkin, and theater tickets cost a ruble.”

Thirty years later, she returned to Russia in 2007 as part of an alumni tour led by Prof. Judson Rosengrant [Russian 1979–90]. The changes astonished her: “The supermarkets, cafes, movies, Western TV—I wouldn’t have known I was in Russia. There was a BMW dealership on the main drag in Moscow, with a rainbow-colored BMW on a turntable!” She spent an extra week in St. Petersburg, scouting locations for the novel, including the Church of St. John the Baptist, where Marina meets her archnemesis, Arkady von Princip.

Still not satisfied that she was prepared to convey the sights and smells of the era, she returned to St. Petersburg two years later on a Likhachev Foundation Cultural Fellowship, designed for foreigners working in the arts and culture. She made a beeline for the Museum of Political History, where she peppered curators and historians with seven single-spaced pages of questions.

After 10 years of research and rewriting (interspersed with teaching at the University of Southern California), the book was ready, and so was the publishing world. 

The reviews for The Revolution of Marina M. ranged from the rapturous to the mildly exasperated. The Christian Science Monitor called it “Fitch’s most powerful narrative, beautifully and propulsively written, dense with atmosphere and poetics.” The Chicago Tribune opined, “Like Marina, it is maddening and flawed,” but conceded that The Revolution of Marina M. was “astonishingly . . . hard to put down.” USA Today called it “sprawling, immersive, and heavily researched—and it’s only part one of two.” 

The New York Times reviewer, Simon Sebag Montefiore, a rival author of Russian historical novels, professed shock that the tale seems to focus as much on sex and survival as sectarian struggles. Rather than being a “quintessential revolutionary heroine,” he sulked, Marina “is tossed like flotsam by great events, and the novel would benefit if she were more of a participant.”

Ruled by a rash and fickle heart, Marina is indeed tossed like flotsam—not just by great events but by her own impulses, both noble and carnal. It is her schoolmate Varvara, a staunch Bolshevik, who plays the role of defending the revolution against Tsarists—real and imaginary. Varvara ranks high among Fitch’s favorite characters, along with Kolya Shurov, the suave speculator who leaves Marina hanging again and again.

As the winter of 1919 closes in, Marina casts her lot with a group of occultists at her family’s rural dacha. Any reader who has made it this far will be avidly waiting for March 2019, when Book Two picks up the story.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music