By Adrienne Sharp
384 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Mathilde Kschessinska, the narrator of Adrienne Sharp's brilliant The True Memoirs of Little K, was a real person: a famous dancer in the Imperial Ballet of Russia at the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, we can trust very little of what we learn from and about the 99-year-old heroine of this diary-within-a-novel, which even she admits is a "concoction of fiction and lies." Once the mistress of the last czar, Nicholas Romanov, she may well have also been the lover of several members of his family and court. But was her son really the czar's heir, or did she just use the boy to manipulate the heartsick sovereign, whose only male child, a hemophiliac, was unlikely to live to succeed him? We'll never know, but then, neither did the Romanovs, who were slaughtered in 1918 following the Russian Revolution. Conniving, social climbing, and largely insufferable—"I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself"—Little K (as Nicholas supposedly called her) is the most unreliable of narrators about affairs of her own heart. But when reporting on a time, place, and disappearing way of life, especially with her sumptuous, often loving descriptions of Russian dance and culture, she emerges as the ultimate truth-teller. If only we'd had history teachers this knowledgeable—and this much fun.