Piers Paul Read

"Alice in Exile"

(reviewed by Jenny Dressel APR 04, 2004)

Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read

I like historical fiction a lot. It must be the multi-tasker in me; there's nothing better than reading a great story and learning a little bit of history at the same time. Sometimes, I even end up in the nonfiction section of the library after reading great historical fiction. Piers Paul Read's book, Alice in Exile will have me traveling to the nonfiction section soon.

This novel is based on World War I and the succeeding Russian Revolution. Alice Fry is a young English woman studying languages at Bedford College, in 1913. When we first meet her, she's at a society party, unaccompanied, and quite comfortable. She meets Edward Cobb, a young well to do army officer, who has just returned from Africa. He is entranced by her outspoken opinions, and she finds him quite attractive.

"Are you a suffragette?" he sounded alarmed.

"I certainly think that women should have the vote."

"But you don't chain yourself to railings."

"Not yet."

"What about your mother?"

"She's the model of an old-fashioned wife. But my father thinks that women should have the vote."

Alice's father, Maurice, is a small publisher in England. He publishes many progressive materials, and his daughter characterizes the pamphlets as "seditious."

Edward falls deeply in love with Alice and proposes to her against his family's wishes. Alice surprises herself and accepts; she never thought that she would ever be interested enough in someone to actually "marry" them.

All is going as planned, until the attorney general of London advises Edward that Alice's father, Maurice was going to be arrested for publishing a pamphlet called, "The Sexual Nature of Woman." He was going to be prosecuted for "obscenity and the corruption of moral values."

Due to the scandal, Edward calls off the engagement with Alice. Alice, heartbroken and pregnant, travels to Russia with a Baron Rettenberg to become the baron's governess. Alice's time in Russia, and the World War and revolution are the most interesting aspect of this book.

Read has examined and characterized WWI and the Bolshevik revolution with incredible lucidity. I found his perspective really fascinating. The banishment of Nicholas and Alexandra has always been interesting to me, but Read's perspective of the political aspects and battles of the revolution AFTER the dethroning of the Tsar are really compelling. Everyone knows of "Rasputin" and "Anastasia," but only a true history buff knows the fighting that continued afterwards. The rise of the peasants from the perspective of the nobility is captured wonderfully in this book. A perfect example of this is a conversation at the Baron Rettenberg's dinner table. The Baron's eldest daughter, Katya, has returned home from her studies, and she questions her aristocratic family regarding the impending war.

"If there is to be a war," said Katya, "as now seems inevitable, and so many of our young men are to be killed, don't you think the finger should be pointed at the older men who have so lamentably failed to prevent it. The so-called statesmen."- she looked at her uncle- "and, of course, the diplomats." she turned to her father- "people who pretended to know what was going on but clearly didn't."

"We live in autocracy," said Dimitry Alexeyovich ponderously, "where statesmen and diplomats can only advise. They cannot decide."

"Well, shouldn't they be held responsible for that?"

"For what?" asked Rettenberg.

"For living so complacently in a tyranny!"

Read has created a wonderful character in Alice -- a heroine who stood for what she believed in, and helped where she could, with war circling her at every juncture. To be frank, Alice surprised me; she is quite a strong woman for an English lady in the early 20th century.

Read's biography states he "studied history at Cambridge" and it's obvious. The great thing is he can take what he's learned and make it interesting for the rest of us. He's written quite a few previous novels, all of which seem to be out of print, and four nonfiction works, one of which is Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. I liked that movie; now I'll have to read the book.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

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About the Author:

Piers Paul ReadPiers Paul Read was born in 1941 in Beaconsfield and educated in Ampleforth College and St. John's college, Cambridge. He is one of Britain's foremost writers, having authored 15 novels and several works of non-fiction, including the best-seller Alive, later made into a successful movie. He also received the Thomas More medal for distinguished contribution to Catholic literature for his book Alive. His novels have won the Hawthornden Prize and the Geoffrey Faber, Somerset Maugham, and James Tait Black Awards. He is married with four children and lives in London.

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