I always enjoy historical fiction because the modern age holds so few charms and surprises anymore, and historical fiction from other countries is even more fun. So when Infraction offered me a chance to be transported to early nineteenth century Russia and get a glimpse into that society with an added bonus of looking at queer relationships, I jumped. And the leap was well-rewarded. Infraction is an excellent window into that world, full of strong characters, interesting turns, and an unexpected, though not unsurprising, ending.
Marya Zhukova is a fiercely independent woman living in St. Petersburg in the year 1875, taking care of her elderly maiden aunt Lidia, who is dying of consumption . She loves literature and mathematics, advancing as far as possible in those subjects at the St. Petersburg Institute for Girls. But she wants more, attending a series of private lectures with a number of like-minded women. There, Marya falls in love with Vera, a tutor. As their relationship blossoms, Marya’s aunt succumbs to her ailment, but before Lidia dies, she extracts a promise from Marya to marry. Despite Vera’s fears that a husband will come between them, Marya enters into a platonic marriage with librarian Sergei, altering the lives of everyone involved.
Zipter does an admirable job with St. Petersburg, placing us there with glimpses of its food, its culture, its societal restrictions, and its limited opportunities for unmarried women. But any backdrop, no matter how richly portrayed, is just scenery without powerful characters to struggle within its confines, and Zipter accounts herself equally well on that front. Marya is fierce, refusing to be bound by tradition, openly mocking the suitors Lidia parades past her at soirees Lidia organizes to acquaint her with the eligible St. Petersburg bachelors. Lidia remains the bastion of tradition in their household, clinging to the old ways and customs, providing stability for Marya as she allows her to fly in the face of those same customs. Sergei is also interesting, so hungry for intellectual compatibility that he gives up romantic passion for its sake.
Chapters are delineated by character name, but they are differentiated. Marya and Lidia’s chapters are named after them and written in third person limited, Vera’s chapters, however, are all labeled “Vera’s Journal” and written in first person. Sergei (and, indeed, all of the male characters) are also written in first person but are epistolary–letters Sergei writes to either his brother or cousin or missives Marya’s old math instructor, Grigorii, pens to his former pupil regarding her further instruction.
This rather odd differentiation between the way parts of the story are presented really has no effect on the story or its understanding–and some readers may not even perceive it–but as an editor, I tend to notice those details and wonder why the author made those choices. Why are Marya and Lidia the only characters who tell their story in third person? Or the male characters restricted to letters? Again, it really bears no impact on the story and it’s not irritating or problematic in any way…but why?
In any case, Infraction makes for fascinating historical fiction with an intriguing storyline played out through interesting and wholly absorbing characters.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler