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A New Breed aka The Garden


A New Breed, the much-anticipated new novel from Russia’s beloved author of The Women of Lazarus, is set at the close of the 19th century against the backdrop of the estate of one of the country’s oldest noble families.

With her signature lavish, rich language palette Stepnova portrays a new type of a woman – an ultimately free person in society’s rigid structure that rejects a woman as an independent or notable element. Tusya, the novel’s female protagonist, doesn’t fight existing norms, she creates her own new world. But what is the price that her family, friends, and partners will pay for her freedom?

Princess Boryatinskaya, the daughter of an old noble family and a friend of the Empress, gives birth to her third child, Natalia (who only accepts Tusya as a name), at the scandalously improper age of 45. Tusya is the result of a single passionate night in the respected marriage of two noble spouses – it takes place in a newly acquired manor house with a fecund old garden.

Tusya, who receives the curative effect of the estate’s fresh air beginning at birth, is raised to be a new type of a woman, a person of deed, unrestricted will and unbridled freedom. Two people handle her upbringing. The first is her mother, Princess Boryatinskaya, who never leaves the estate after her daughter’s birth and never returns to societal duties. The second is Grigory Meizel, a doctor of medicine, who saves the child from death in infancy and devotes his life to Tusya’s upbringing. Through Tusya, Meizel hopes to redeem his dishonour: at the violent cholera uprisings in St Petersburg Meizel fled in fear and did not assist his colleague maimed by a frenzied mob. Boryatinskaya and Meizel create a new world for Tusya, where she herself decides when and how to begin to talk, what to study, and what or whom to love. Horses become the girl’s true love, and Tusya will stop at nothing to shape the life she desires, with a horse-breeding farm in fore front of the noble manor house.

The second plane of the novel unfolds in Simbirsk, a new destination for Radovich – an impoverished low-ranked clerk working for the state mail service – and his son. Despite his meagre financial state Radovich, a physically imposing and very handsome person, behaves öike a noble man. He creates a myth and raises his only son as a passionate worshiper of the cult of the father, as a vessel of the Serbian royal blood. This legend, which never receives any documentary evidence, creates a shield for Radovich between his mundane, dull, and penniless reality, and the world he and his son happily inhabit. That world is built on total obedience to the trinity of God, the emperor, and the father.

A sudden dream-like friendship between Radovich’s son and Alexander destroys crashes the very foundation of the Radovich family. Radovich junior inherits his father’s attractive appearance, but not his father’s psychotic grandness. Self-aware but inherently flawed, Radovich junior has hardly dreamt of being noticed, not to mention being loved, yet he longs for love and recognition with a youthful anguish. When Alexander Ulianov, the center of Simbirsk academic life and the heart of society, irrevocably chooses Radovich as his friend, Radovich embraces in Ulianov his new self, an ardent follower of his new idol. Alexander Ulianov and Radovich leave together for St Petersburg to pursue a promising (for Alexander, at least) academic career.

There Radovich gets to know a court guard captain of Serbian origin – a bon-vivant who opens up a new world for him, made of cocottes, hot chocolate, sparkling wine, gambling – as well as the charm of the guard cavalry and proximity to the emperor himself. Radovich dives passionately into his new life, dismissing Alexander Ulianov just as he had dismissed his father earlier. Embittered with jealousy and pain from the loss of his love, Ulianov ends up plotting against the emperor. Radovich knows about Ulianov’s arrest and charges as he travels home out of duty to his gravely ill father. Struck with the mortal fear of imminent persecution as an accomplice to the plot, he is also on the run. Radovich will never come home; he will never see either his father or Ulianov again. He will learn of Ulianov’s execution while at Boryatinskaya’s estate, where he will be the newly hired manager of the stable and fiancé of the Princess’ adopted daughter, Annette. Until Tusya decides differently.

Fate’s whim means the two men shaping Tusya’s story are broken and flawed – fugitives in a vain attempt to escape from guilt feelings. Yet Tusya will not become either their salvation or their redemption, just as she also cannot be a safe haven: her blinding passion is ruthless and her thirst for a brave new life is inexhaustible.

Stepnova writes in the best traditions of nineteenth century Russian literature: her tone is elegant and her rich word choices are a colorful palette. The author draws readers into the world that she has lavishly painted and the reader finds themselves lost for the day in the guilty pleasure of crying along with the dramatic turmoil of the characters’ ups and downs.

Marina Stepnova wrote a powerful complex novel that pictures the modern day and its freedom taken for granted by modern children – from the prism of the nineteenth century. In The Garden’s universe everything is predetermined, but the socially conditioned passions break out in the most unexpected ways. The novel is beautifully structured, one thing rhyming and echoing with another, weaving elaborately in a pattern reminiscent of the Princess Boryatinskaya’s precious shawl.

An exquisitely literary text. The Garden starts an easy-going intercourse with both Russian and world literature. Marina Stepnova has written a novel that explores the past with the modern vision. She revises history, rewriting it anew, covering a range of topics – from conscious parenting to a book escapism to a crisis behaviour. And it is not about one family – this is a reflection of an epoch. The Garden is devised with ease and logic, as a revolver, and in this it is enticingly beautiful.

— Novaya Gazeta

The Garden is a sophisticated big novel that alludes to Chekhov, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Stylistically elaborate, exquisite as in needlework, and grand in its scope – this is indeed a literary event, unique and inspiring. –

Stepnova’s The Garden is one of the widely discussed book of 2020. This is a pseudo-historical novel that brings up issues that are topical today: feminism, new ways of parenting, Russian liberalism… In this, Stepnova avoids rigid answers, questioning every problem’s resolve. Stepnova succeeds in overcoming the novel’s postmodern flow – she fills her text that is a parody by its essence (the parody on literary cliches that deconstructs cultural myths) with lyrics, sympathy and tenderness towards her characters.

— Uchitelskaya Gazeta

Stepnova frees 19th century from the enchantment of Chekhov and Dostoevsky. She draws a new image of the 19th century Russia and writes an acutely topical novel – there’s an issue of emancipation, a clash between traditions and molding the image of future, striving for the dream despite all odds. It turns out that in order to write a topical modern novel a writer can still set the text in the 19th century, and does not have to mention Covid or protests in Belarus.

Book details

Elena Shubina Publishing (AST)

Novel, 2020

412 pp

Rights sold

  • Lithuanian Tyto Alba

  • Mongolian Nepko

  • Arabic Thaqafa

  • Estonian Tänapäev

  • Hungarian Európa Publishers

  • Romanian Curtea Veche

  • Macedonian Antolog

  • Malayalam (India) Green Books

Literary awards

  • Yasnaya Polyana Prize 2021 (readers’ choice)

  • Shortlisted for the Big Book Award 2021

  • Shortlisted for the National Book of the Year 2020

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