Here’s something that may come as a surprise for fans of Paint It Black and the Oprah-approved White Oleander: Bestselling novelist Janet Fitch has a secret passion for Russia. It started back when the writer, 62, was attending junior high in Los Angeles and fell in love with Crime and Punishment, launching a deep dive into the waters of Russian literature.
“I’m a pretty intense person myself,” Fitch explains during a call to her home in Los Angeles, “and a lot of the literature we got as kids was pretty pallid—it didn’t suit me at all.” Opening Crime and Punishment, she says with a laugh, “was like, OK, here we are. This is my internal landscape.”
After decades of reading Russian literature and history and a few trips to the country, Fitch—who studied history at Reed College—has distilled that fascination into her first work of historical fiction, The Revolution of Marina M., an epic page-turner and part one of a two-volume tale set during the Russian Revolution. Ten years in the making, the novel snuck up on Fitch, who had originally planned to write about a Russian émigré living in 1920s Los Angeles. But it was impossible to tell the character’s story without flashing back to the past in Russia—interludes that, according to Fitch’s critique group, were the most interesting parts.
Soon, Fitch was making a full-on plunge into one of the most turbulent and confusing periods in Russian history, a place where few Western novelists have dared to tread, even after 100 years.
“The Revolution is a moving target,” Fitch says. “People can be good guys and bad guys, or they’re bad guys to start out with, then good guys. . . . It’s a far more sophisticated problem.”
Luckily for readers, Fitch has created a firecracker of a guide through the tangled years of revolution: the titular Marina. Born with the new century, Marina is just 16 when the first tremors of rebellion begin to penetrate her comfortable upper-class St. Petersburg home. As a passionate young poet, Marina finds her soul stirred by the calls for freedom and action.
“To be Marina, it was a joy,” Fitch says. “This is the first time I’ve written a character who wasn’t under the foot of events, but more equal to the events. She’s a far more fiery person than I’ve ever written before. A much braver person than I’ve ever written before. She’s much more of a real heroine than I’ve ever tried before.”
Like any real heroine, Marina must deal with some complicated relationships. She and her two best friends aren’t always on the same page when it comes to the idea of revolution: Mina, the daughter of Jewish academics, is more cautious, while Varvara, who lives in near poverty, is ready to burn it all down. Marina’s father is a government official, invested in keeping things as close to the status quo as possible; her mother is an aristocrat who refuses to even think about politics; and her sensitive younger brother is facing pressure to enlist. In the midst of all this, Marina is also dealing with a normal coming-of-age dilemma: her burgeoning sexuality. Should she wait for her childhood crush to come back from the front or throw in her lot with a passionate proletarian poet?
“She’s much more of a real heroine than I’ve ever tried before.”
Needless to say, this headstrong teenager doesn’t always handle these complexities well. “I’ve known fiery people,” Fitch says. “They’re glorious, they believe, they’re willing to stick their necks out, they’re willing to fall a long way, they make a mess—for themselves and others—but they live in a large way.” That spark makes Marina’s picaresque journey through this turbulent era a compelling one to follow, even if, at times, you might wish you could warn her about what’s to come.
“It’s the first book that I’ve written that has been very propulsive, as far as the events of the story,” Fitch says. “When you’re in the midst of a revolution, your life will be changed week by week by what happens in the external world. So it’s much more of an event-driven book.”
Fitch’s earlier novels, which she describes as “more interior,” were both bestsellers. Both have been adapted to film—White Oleander as a major feature and Paint It Black as an indie film, released in October via streaming services. But no matter how different The Revolution of Marina M. is to Fitch’s previous works, it has many of the hallmarks her readers have come to look for, including complex and dynamic female characters. Readers will come away with more understanding of the Revolution, but this is no history book.
“People living through history don’t know what’s going on at the top. We only see the effects on our lives. That’s what fiction does best. It’s showing us how it felt to be in those times, rather than what Lenin thought. The average person had no idea; they’re just trying to get some food, find work, decide between your two boyfriends,” she says with a laugh.
The events that sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution—vast income inequality, a rise in populism, an unpopular leader, a lengthy and pointless war—might seem uncomfortably familiar to modern readers, and Fitch does see some parallels between world events in 1917 and 2017.
“We are living in a revolutionary period right now . . . not the cataclysm that the Russian Revolution was, but we’re living through a time of extreme change,” says Fitch. “Revolutions don’t stop, that’s the most important thing you can take away from The Revolution of Marina M. Once the wheel gets turning, it keeps turning. In Russia, it’s still turning.”
(Author photo by Cat Gwynn.)