Review: ‘The Lieutenant’s Lover’ by Harry Bingham

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Friday, December 10, 2010 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Title: The Lieutenant’s Lover

Author: Harry Bingham

Published: Harper, 2006, pp. 442.  Originally published 2006

Blurb: Misha is an aristocratic young officer in the army when the Russian revolution sweeps away all his certainties.  Tonya is a nurse from an impoverished family in St Petersburg.  They should have been bitter enemies; and yet they fall passionately in love.  It cannot last and, as the political situation grows ever worse, Misha is forced to flee the country.

Thirty years later, Misha has survived the war and seeks to rebuild his life in the destroyed city of Berlin.  Then, one snowy winter’s day, he glimpses a woman who resembles Tonya.  Can this be his lost love?  Drawn into a dangerous double game of espionage and betrayal, the two lovers struggle to find each other, as the divide deepens between East and West…

When, where and why: I have no idea when or why I bought this, but I’ve definitely had it for long enough to it to become book 31/50 for my (rather optimistic, given the date) Books Off the Shelf Challenge.  I decided to read it as one of the categories in the challenge in which I’m taking part on Goodreads was to read two books by different authors which shared a common word in the title.  After the success of The French Lieutenant’s Woman I decided that ‘lieutenant’ was my word and so this book came out of hibernation.

What I thought: Initially I found this book quite disappointing.  After reading Anna Karenina earlier this year I was looking forward to a return to Russia in this book, but Harry Bingham doesn’t do the landscape justice and the vocabulary and description never quite got there: it didn’t feellike Russia.  The story also starts off with a string of unbelieveable events, which doesn’t help matters: Misha, a former aristocrat, instantly trusts and takes into his confidence Tonya, a member of the working class, whose cousin is an important figure locally in the revolution and has just been round to seize more of his family’s belongings.  Sounds completely realistic to me.  Naturally, Misha and Tonya fall in love, but this is portrayed without any preamble or sense of development, so I wasn’t invested in their relationship in any way because it came out of the blue.

Fortunately, this section of the story is quite short and the narrative picks up a great deal once it relocates from revolutionary Russia to post-war Berlin.  I’ve read a lot of historical fiction books surrounding the Second World War but I think this is the first one which deals with the aftermath of the conflict rather than the fighting itself, so it was very interesting from that perspective.  This second part of the novel follows the separate lives of Misha and Tonya as they try to cope in the ruins of a city governed by four different armies (although only three, the British, the Americans and the Russians, are of any relevance to the book), never giving up hope of finding one another again.

I enjoyed the fact that, after such a swift romance in the initial stage of the novel, Harry Bingham doesn’t give Misha and Tonya an easy ride after this.  There are continuous near-misses as the two are almost reunited again only to be foiled by circumstance, and this allowed me to develop the interest in seeing their relationship succeed which was absent from the portion set in Russia.  I also liked Bingham’s decision to give both Misha and Tonya lives outside of their love for one another: I find novels where the characters fall in love instantly, are separated after a few months and then spend the rest of their lives waiting for one another deeply unrealistic, so I was happy that the book didn’t go down this route.  Instead, Misha and Tonya both marry and have families and, although these are naturally conveniently out of the way by the time the two lovers try to find one another again, I appreciated this nod to realism.

Sadly, I thought that this novel went full-circle: it had a bad beginning, a good middle and reverted to a bad ending.  I found the way that Bingham provided a brief historical outline of the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of separation between East and West Germany in the complete absence of any plot to be lazy.  It would have been netter if the lapsed time had been implied by a dated chapter heading, as in other places in the novel, or fleshed out so that these events seemed relevant to the characters.  Left as it was I thought it was a bit sloppy really.  It’s a shame this book was so let down by its introduction and conclusion.

Where this book goes: This one is staying put for now, but it’s a marked man now.  I have a collection of books tagged that I wouldn’t mind losing if I need to get rid of some prior to moving house, and The Lieutenant’s Lover is headed there.

Tea talk: In this book, Tonya’s cousin remarks to her: “The greatest empires of the world have always been tea-drinking.  The Chinese.  The Mughals.  The British, of course.  Now it’s our turn.  The rise of the Russian tea-drinking empire”.  What else could I drink in honour of the Russian tea-drinking empire but Russian Caravan?

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2 Responses to “Review: ‘The Lieutenant’s Lover’ by Harry Bingham”

Comment from Christina
Time December 10, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Hmm…This one was on my TBR list, but it sounds like I should not be in a rush to pick it. The premise sounded interesting, but bad beginnings and bad endings are very frustrating.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time December 13, 2010 at 10:35 am

Unfortunately it did seem a bit lacklustre because of the beginning and ending, but it’s a quick read so don’t be too dissuaded from picking it up. Even if you’re like me and have to finish everything you start it won’t take up much of your life.

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