This book is full of interesting subject matter. Pushkin, the founding father of Russian Literature and its most exemplary poet, is a fascinating figure, embodying the enigmatic Russian soul and character. He was the ultimate Romantic outsider. His African descent was the subject of behind-the-back snickering at the court of Nicholas I. He was, however, held in great esteem as a writer by his contemporaries, yet he did not achieve his heroic status until after his death. It is his death (at the relatively young age of 38) in a duel with the French dandy, George D'Anthes, that is the primary subject of Serena Vitale's investigation.
The main drawbacks to Pushkin's Button are stylistic. Instead of marshaling her facts and presenting them in a forthright manner, Vitale instead resorts to a kind of breathy, gossip-laden, Dominick Dunne for "Vanity Fair," type exercise. She also scatters tidbits of information that she claims will have some significant import later in the story, yet in most instances, this turns out not to be the case. If she is trying to write a mystery, there are way too many red herrings. She claims that a series of letters found in a trunk in Paris in 1989 and viewed for the first time by her, reveal some startling information concerning the events leading up to the duel. Written by D'Anthes to his patron Barron Heeckeren (the Dutch Ambassador to Russia, who later adopted D'Anthes and may have had a more-than-fatherly love for his charge), they convey nothing particularly startling. To those familiar with the background behind the main characters, the fact that the letters reveal that D'Anthes and Heeckeren were shallow, supercilious hedonists is hardly news. Though she constantly hints that "all will be revealed," concerning the identity of the perpetrator of the "cuckold letters" that were disseminated amongst the Petersburg aristocracy, and that directly led Pushkin to challenge D'Anthes to the fatal duel, the identity behind the letters is never established. This is but one example of myriad unsubstantial queries the author leaves hanging.
For those looking for a more carefully reasoned, and infinitely better written book that covers much of the same material, I would recommend Henri Troyat's biography of Pushkin. Troyat, unlike Vitale, doesn't engage in empty conjecture and he has a thorough understanding of Russian history and literature, as he has authored several great biographies, ranging from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Tolstoy, Elizabeth II, Alexander I, etc.