The Russian Concubine

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Overview

A sweeping novel set in war-torn 1928 China, with a star-crossed love story at its center.

In a city full of thieves and Communists, danger and death, spirited young Lydia Ivanova has lived a hard life. Always looking over her shoulder, the sixteen-year-old must steal to feed herself and her mother, Valentina, who numbered among the Russian elite until Bolsheviks murdered most of them, including her husband. As exiles, Lydia and Valentina have ...

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The Russian Concubine

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Overview

A sweeping novel set in war-torn 1928 China, with a star-crossed love story at its center.

In a city full of thieves and Communists, danger and death, spirited young Lydia Ivanova has lived a hard life. Always looking over her shoulder, the sixteen-year-old must steal to feed herself and her mother, Valentina, who numbered among the Russian elite until Bolsheviks murdered most of them, including her husband. As exiles, Lydia and Valentina have learned to survive in a foreign land.

Often, Lydia steals away to meet with the handsome young freedom fighter Chang An Lo. But they face danger: Chiang Kai Shek's troops are headed toward Junchow to kill Reds like Chang, who has in his possession the jewels of a tsarina, meant as a gift for the despot's wife. The young pair's all-consuming love can only bring shame and peril upon them, from both sides. Those in power will do anything to quell it. But Lydia and Chang are powerless to end it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The experiences of the author's mother inspired this debut novel, a somewhat improbable tale of star-crossed love in 1928 China. Valentina Ivanova and her 16-year-old daughter, Lydia, White Russian refugees, live in grinding poverty in the International Settlement of Junchow, subsisting off whatever presents Valentina can charm from gentlemen admirers and the profits Lydia makes from pawning stolen goods. When Lydia inadvertently attracts the unwelcome attentions of a criminal gang, the Black Snakes, she finds a rescuer in Chang An Lo, an English-speaking Communist and kung fu master. Danger is never far as the two fall in love. Lydia's travails are mirrored by those of Theo Willoughby, the British headmaster of her school. Theo's struggle to preserve his school and his happy life with his Chinese mistress, Li Mei, drives him to collude with Li Mei's estranged father-the leader of the Black Snakes-to run opium into Junchow. Violence is more prevalent (and graphic) than sex, and the narrative has extended periods of inertia during which there is much action, but not of the plot-advancing sort. Despite these flaws, Furnivall vividly evokes Lydia's character and personal struggles against a backdrop of depravity and corruption. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Set in prerevolutionary China between the world wars, Furnivall's debut offers up a love story as tumultuous as its setting. Lydia, a 16-year-old refugee from Russia, and her mother, Valentina, a former concert pianist, have taken up a life of impoverishment in the International Settlement in Junchow. Indulging in deception and petty thievery to survive, Lydia one day finds herself on the wrong side of the Black Snakes, an organized gang of Chinese criminals. Enter the young Communist Chang An Lo, who saves Lydia's life on impulse and thus sets off their disastrous love story. Surrounded by a cast of nefarious characters who entangle Lydia and Chang in a web of crimes as varied as drug trafficking, sexual perversion, and thieving, the young lovers find their romance meeting resistance and complication at every turn. While her characters are engaging and her pacing quick, Furnivall's zealousness gets in the way. Too many characters and unnecessary plot points cause this otherwise entertaining story to lose focus, diminishing its impact. Recommended only for larger historical fiction collections.
—Leigh Wright

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425222836
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/1/2007

Meet the Author

Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and currently lives in Devon, England. Married and the mother of two sons, she has working in publishing and television advertising. She drew inspiration for The Russian Concubine from her mother’s experiences as a White Russian refugee in China.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

At once a sweeping epic love story and a stunning literary debut, The Russian Concubine describes the lives of two generations of women, both struggling against their destiny. Valentina Ivanova, formerly counted among Russia's elite, watched as the Bolsheviks captured her husband. Able to purchase the life of her young daughter Lydia, Valentina takes her to Northern China, to the whites-only International Settlement, where, as a lounge piano player, she struggles to make ends meet in the only way she knows how… Now a teenager and possessed of a fierce spirit and wild independence, Lydia Ivanova meets the young Communist Chang An Lo after he saves her life, and falls in love with all of the passion in her young soul. With their relationship comes danger, from both sides of the political struggle, but both are powerless to end it.

"I read it in one sitting! Not only a gripping love story, but a novel which captures the sights, smells, hopes and desires of Russia at the dawn of the 20th century, and pre-Revolutionary China, so skillfully that readers will feel they are there." —Kate Mosse

"The wonderfully drawn and all-too-human characters struggle to survive in a world of danger and bewildering change…caught between cultures, ideologies—and the growing realization that only the frail reed of love is strong enough to withstand the destroying winds of time." —Diana Gabaldon

ABOUT KATE FURNIVALL

Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and currently lives in Devon, England. Married and the mother of two sons, she has worked in publishing and television advertising. She drew inspiration for The Russian Concubinefrom her mother's experiences as a White Russian refugee in China.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Despite her being a European girl, and therefore less than nothing to his people, Chang saves Lydia's life at the beginning of the novel. Why do you think he does so?
     
  • Lydia's stubborn bravery at the beginning of The Russian Concubine is described as foolhardy by many of the people she encounters. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that other people's opinion of her changes by the end of the book? Why?
     
  • How does Theo serve as a bridge between the Chinese and Western worlds he lives in? How does acting in that capacity take its toll on him towards the end of the novel?
     
  • Discuss the sacrifices and moral compromises that each character makes for what he or she believes is the greater good. For example, Theo becomes an opium runner in order to earn money to keep his school open, educating the European children in China. Do you think that the characters' actions in their respective situations help make them stronger people, or do their actions lessen them as humans?
     
  • Lydia and Chang get caught up in the turmoil of the political situation in the 1920s. Do you think that the poverty levels in China made it easy for young men to become Communists? Did the presence of the expatriate Russians make a difference in their political leanings? Discuss how Chang's Communist beliefs war with his love for Lydia.
     
  • Toward the end of the novel, Valentina reveals the secret of Lydia's scholarship to the Willoughby Academy. Do you think that her sacrifice for her daughter is an example of her strength as a mother, or her weakness as a woman?
     
  • When Lydia first meets Liev Popkov, she's facing him at a line-up after her lie regarding the stolen necklace at the Ulysses Club gets him arrested. Later, she hires him as her bodyguard, but their relationship develops into a friendship beyond employer/employee. Why do you think that Liev becomes so protective of Lydia after he meets her?
     
  • In many ways, Alfred is the first stable male influence in Lydia's life. What kind of life do you think Lydia would have led had Alfred entered her life earlier? Do you feel his nature/personality was as influential as his money? Does his money play a positive or a negative role in shaping their relationship?
     
  • The theme of freedom is prevalent throughout the novel. In what ways are Lydia and Chang caged, even before they are kidnapped by the Black Snakes? How does their love for each other help to set them free? Do you think that their relationship mirrors the political situation in China at all?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 74 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(36)

4 Star

(22)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(3)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 74 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 17, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful!

    I rarely give five stars to a book. This one, however, had something special and unique that is often lacking in modern novels. First of all, the story was exciting, beautiful, and rich with well researched history. I was glued to every page, constantly needing to know what would happen next. At the same time, I was also enchanted by the love story which was unique and different from typical love stories you often find in novels, all weaved within a historical context that brought new knowledge to my attention (I learned a good deal of history that I didn't realize before).

    What truly makes this story stand out from others is the fact that the author did not fit her characters into the literary boxes that so many authors do. The protagonists were not perfect. They had human flaws and made human mistakes. They were not boring, because they were real. At the same time, the darker characters who would be considered "bad" had depth to them as well...they had a hard time completely fitting into the category of "villain", because they were still human. The fact that the author stepped out of the boundaries modern literature has formed helped to create an interesting story. As I read I didn't know what to expect or how this book was going to be resolved, because it was so unlike the typical over used story line. This is what earns a book five stars in my opinion, and I wish more authors took the creative risks this author did.

    If I had one complaint about the book, it would simply be that a couple of the more minor story lines were not resolved in the end. However, I feel as if that may have been intentional. This book was so real and life like, that I believe the author intended to leave some of the story lines open, just as we're never fully sure how life will resolve itself. Even so, she did this in a way that still gave readers a satisfying ending.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2012

    Very good read! Looking forward to reading the rest of the serie

    Very good read! Looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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  • Posted April 11, 2012

    loved the book.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this book so much, bought the sequel. I feel it is well written and learned quite a bit about the discord between China and Russia during this time period.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 5, 2012

    The first book in the series, "Jewel of St. Petersburg"

    The first book in the series, "Jewel of St. Petersburg", is a little slow in the middle but then gets really good and this book, despite its' name, are absolutely fantastic!

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  • Posted July 1, 2011

    Beautifully written

    I highly recommend this to anyone who likes a historical romance with twists and turns fueled by a political backdrop

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  • Posted December 9, 2010

    Fantastic Read!!!!

    I have never heard of this author before. When I read the overview I wasn't so sure if i was going to like this. Never ever judge a book by its cover!! This is a heartwarming tear jerking kind of story. This story will always be with me. If you enjoy Historical fiction/love stories, this is the book for you. One of my best reads yet!!!

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  • Posted April 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Escape

    One of my absolute favorites. I recommend this book to every book lover I meet that I see wandering the literature section. The plot goes into history and has a love story all wrapped up in adventure. If you love to escape from the realities of modern life, this book is great. Also, if you like history and want to gain perspective on war then this is also for you. I am not saying it's fact, it is simply interesting. The reader can either love or hate the main character. Her choices are ones people can think back on and think about on with their own opinions. Furnivall is currently one of my favorite authors. If you like this book as much as I do, you'll be searching for the sequel immediately.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2010

    Good book for a very long weekend

    Enjoyed the book. It was long but kept moving and the characters developed as the story unfolded. The setting for the book was some place that I wasn't familiar with so the little bit of history I found interesting.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2009

    Predicable

    Not very well written but interesting information about a part of the world I know little about. The plot line was predicable and somewhat sad. The characters were also predicable.

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  • Posted May 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I love this book!

    Lydia Ivanova will forever go down in my personal book of heroes. The grit this girl has is beyond compare. The setting is so well conveyed that I felt I was in another place. And the tenderness of the love story is rendered with such grace, I was reminded of the white-hot innocence of our hearts that is still to found in this world...every once in a while.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 2, 2009

    You'll Be Hooked From Page One

    I read this book in about 3 days. I couldnt put it down!!! Its full of drama and conflicts. It even offers a story of love. This book is so detailed, it actually puts the reader into the setting of pre-revolutionary China. This book offers everything!!! I loved it, LOVED IT, LOVED IT!!!!

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  • Posted January 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read!

    I loved this book. It carried enough weight in content to really bite into without feeling like you were just scraping the top layer of the story. There were surprises along the way, and the setting was well defined. The early chapters of the book did give to a somewhat slower pace, but it picked up rapidly and captivated me until the end.<BR/><BR/>If you like historical fiction, you will enjoy this one.

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  • Posted November 28, 2008

    Reader Gets Lost

    ...And it's hard to find the way back. In general, the book has a wonderful historical context, but the author could have edited and done without a lot of the drama.

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  • Posted October 27, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A good read!

    This is a really good story about people of several ethnic backgrounds living in an international area of China. It takes readers for an emotional ride as the characters struggle to find a way to live in dangerous times. You can't help but hope for their survival and be amazed at the hardships they endure. I recommend this book to historical fiction readers and to those who love an unpredictable adventure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2008

    you will love this book

    I could not put this book down,it draws you into another time and place but you feel as if you are watching from behind the bushes. You become so connected with the characters....A MUST READ

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2008

    Multifaceted and demanding of discussion

    Furnivall's first novel is an interesting combination of Chinese and Russian history. The characters are developed well through the course of the novel, although the development of Chang, the Chinese Romeo to Lydia's Russian Juliet is a bit stilted at times. One of the best parts of this novel is the fact that there are multiple threads of storylines woven together throughout the novel. The 'love' story is really only one small part of the overall plot. I'm hoping a sequel will follow one day to tie up all of the loose threads! I recommend this book strongly -- even if only so I can find someone to discuss it with! :'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2008

    Great Book

    I had never heard of this author before, but I saw the book discounted @ B&N so I decided to take a chance on it... The book is VERY good...possibly one of the best romance/suspense books I have ever read (and I am a very avid reader). The characters are well developed, and there are a lot of unexpected developments due to the complexity and inter-connection of the characters...Once you begin this book, you will not want to put it down until you are finished... the reader feels such a strong connection to the characters, especially Lydia & Chang, that it feels as though you are right there experiencing everything with them... I sooo wish Kate would write a sequel to this book!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2008

    Great book, but...

    I am still trying to decipher why it is called 'The Russian Concubine'? The book is well written and illustrative. It took me back to China and it's period prior to communism. Good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2008

    Great storyline with well developed characters

    I rarely write a review, however I felt that this book deserved one. Overall, I loved the storyline and it moved at a great pace which kept me interested and reading late into the night. Initially, I really loved all of her descriptions because it really helped to make me feel as though I was there, actually experiencing the book rather than just reading it. However, in certain instances, I felt that there was too much description. The characters were well developed and seemed to be real people. I have recommended this book to several of my friends since I feel that it is defintely a worthwhile read and hope that Kate Furnivall decides to write another book and soon!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2008

    mother and daughter struggle to survive in 1920's China

    The author tells a coming of age love story. Kept me turning the pages, sometimes I wanted to 'look away' but I couldn't. Had to 'see' what would happen next.

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