Anton Chekhov died in 1904. His sister Marya (or "Maria" in this novel) survived the Communist Revolution and two World Wars to die in 1957 at the age of 94. After Anton's death, the unmarried Maria assumed his role as head of the extended Chekhov clan and she devoted the remainder of her life to the protection and advancement of her brother's literary legacy. To do so, she had to plead his case with the Russian authorities and later adapt to the political (and literary) orthodoxy imposed by the Communist regime. Early in the Soviet era, Maria successfully lobbied to have the Chekhov house at Yalta turned into a State museum, thereby insuring that the author's books and papers would be preserved.

The action of this novel takes place during the Great Patriotic War in late 1941 when the Germans occupied Yalta. Maria lives at the Chekhov museum, where she presides as curator. Also living at the house is Peter Kunin, a medical student and would-be writer who is Maria's protégé. In preparation for the Germans' arrival, Maria arranges the house to make it seem that Chekhov was pro-German. For example, she has Kunin dig up an old portrait of Goethe to hang over the mantelpiece.

Despite these machinations, the Germans fully intend to billet soldiers in the museum until a mysterious man named Diskau shows up. Diskau, who works for the German Ministry of Culture, insists that the Chekhov household be spared. In fact, he proposes to win over the local population to the German "liberators" by staging a New Year's Eve production of The Seagull in the abandoned Imperial Theater.

The remainder of the novel traces preparations and rehearsals, culminating in the single catastrophic performance of The Seagull, during which all is revealed.


In this novel Wetherill examines questions of personal and social responsibility, especially in the context of conflict between art and politics. The novel portrays Maria Chekhova as a person who slavishly devotes her life to her brother and his legacy, even though she appears not to understand the aesthetic value of his work.

During the occupation of Yalta, she goes to the extreme of toadying up to the Nazis, just as she had done earlier with the Soviets, to achieve her goal of protecting Chekhov's manuscripts and villa. When presented the opportunity to have The Seagull performed, she happily collaborates with the enemy, denying that collaboration presents any ethical problem whatsoever, thus leading to a classic confrontation between art and politics. I don't know if, in fact, this story is based on historical fact, but the novelist makes us believe it plausible and consistent with Maria Chekhova's character.

The author employs a pseudo-dramatic style (i.e. tagged lines) for much of the action, and this leads naturally to its final scenes, which depict the Imperial Theater performance of The Seagull, including lines from the play along with interpolations. Other parts of the novel are written in straight prose, especially the sections in which the elderly Kunin, who had become curator of the museum after Maria died, reminisces about events that took place more than 40 years earlier.

All in all, though, the book in its entirety adds up to less than the sum of its parts. It has a provocative concept, at least two compelling characters (Maria and Diskau), and an innovative style. Yet, to my mind the story never develops sufficient dramatic force to make the reader care very much what the outcome is.


Little, Brown

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