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I first read about Penelope Fitzgerald in an essay by Julian Barnes (in his Through the Window collection), and, selecting more or less at random from her books, bought this novel for my daughter last Christmas. It's the odd tale of Frank Reid, an Englishman adrift in the rapidly changing setting of pre-revolutionary Moscow. As the story opens, Frank's wife has just run away without explanation, leaving him to look after their three children, and he's obliged to try and re-construct his relationships with his servants, colleagues, the expatriate community and various acquaintances. This is achieved (if that's the right word) with characteristically Russian misunderstandings, muddles and confusion - particularly when Frank's colleague inserts a young girl from the country (ostensibly to look after the children) into the household. It's a short book and an easy read, partly because of the deftly gentle touch of the author, her exactly visual description of a vanished city and time, and the occasional flashes of humour - e.g. "Frank had a room in a boarding house where the landlady, probably unintentionally, as it seemed to him, was gradually starving him to death" [p28].

And yet, I kept thinking of Sebastian Faulks' description of her novels as like being taken for a ride in a car whose structure and fittings all fill you with confidence, until someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window. There are lots of subtleties in the story which closely engage the reader's attention as they travel around Moscow with Frank and take part in his encounters with characters having a varying degree of trustworthiness. By the time you reach the end of the journey, you're not quite sure where you've been or how you ended up here, but you're sure it's been a worthwhile experience.
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on 28 June 2010
Imagine Moscow in 1913: The Russian society is in transition; traditional political structures are being challenged by popular movements; industrial technological advances are leading to workers' unrests; an atmosphere of foreboding is palpable in every strata of society including among the English expatriates in Moscow. Frank Reid, an English business man, born and raised in Moscow, is highly conscious of the changing political landscape. After years of training in Western Europe he has returned to Moscow with his young family to take over his father's large printing press operations. Following an apparently harmonious and organized period during which the family had settled, Frank's wife Nellie suddenly departs without warning, leaving Frank to balance challenges at work with new responsibilities at home with his three children.

Penelope Fitzgerald's novel weaves a delicate and gracefully imagined portrayal of the man at the centre, his attempts at normalcy despite inner doubts and conflicts. In fact, all her characters are exquisitely drawn and remain memorable beyond the reading of the novel. Selwyn Crane, the poetry-writing accountant who is also a follower of the Tolstoyan movement, is one such character, who is endearing despite his rather bumbling personality. Amongst other, possibly questionable, advice he recommends to Frank to hire the young Russian peasant girl, Lisa Ivanovna, as a governess for the children. She remains a mysterious, yet attractive, character and may not be as innocent and placid as she appears.

Frank's consistent efforts to stay out of the political turmoil of the moment, by refusing to use his presses for political pamphlets and other such material, are in some way mirrored by the author's concentration on the private lives of her protagonists. However, the complex realities of the day are always present, bubbling under the surface, subtly evoked and touched on by Fitzgerald, almost as an aside, through brief vignettes of specific incidents or, and especially, as part of the different lively conversations. Reading the exchanges between Frank and his various very engaged counterparts - whether other expatriates or Russian business partners - is a constant delight.

While the novel is not really plot driven at all, it is full of off-beat scenarios that underscore Fitzgerald's much appreciated sense of humour and irony. Finally, Moscow in March cannot be imagined realistically without the weather. Fitzgerald succeeds superbly as she weaves her suggestive descriptions of the unpleasantness of the wet, grey, icy, foggy atmosphere of the late winter into the story and the moods of the character. One scene stands for many: Frank takes a different, rather unpleasant route home through slush and ice along the river to escape an encounter with an older English woman who the minister's wife may want to suggest as a governess for Frank's children.

Fitzgerald's writing is a delight for her lively depicted characters, her often understated yet affecting portrayal of social conditions and human relationships, set in a specific period of time. Having previously read The Blue Flower with great interest and enjoyment, I was highly motivated to read this novel. Her novel adds a lovely intricate portrait of a group of Muscovites that included English expatriates to the rich Russian literature dealing with that period in time. Finally, I have to admit to a personal bias as regards the theme and time characterized in this novel. Having inherited a distant family connection with Moscow, I have visited Moscow several time and studied Russian language and culture. Despite the time lag to 1913, some aspects of Fitzgerald's novel still ring very authentic to me. [Friederike Knabe]
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on 24 May 2014
In Spanish we say that "lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno". The compactness yet richness of this novel is extraordinary. Richness of place and time (Moscow and the country forest is conjured with extraordinary vividness), richness of character (parents, children, servants, workers...) richness of emotions (puzzlement, hope, elation, sadness, fear...) Fabulous writing: simplicity itself (apparently!!) with a quirky, unexpected humour and irony which made me laugh out aloud a number of times, but I also cried. I was hooked in a text where the historical setting and the echoes of Anna Karenina give the reader even more to chew... I totally recommend this story of love and loss, and everyday tragicomedy. I gave it to my extremely astute and literate Russian friend and she was enthralled; could not believe an English author could have created such a convincing world.
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HALL OF FAMEon 6 December 2002
Did your copy have 187 pages? If it had more, I would very much like to know how your version finishes. I and others have commented on how Ms. Fitzgerald leaves a certain ambiguity at the end of some of her works. She invites her readers to finish the story based on what she has shared, or the reader has understood. This time around, I first felt I was reading a work like Dickens' unfinished, "The Mystery of Edwin Droid". However this time it was a bit abrupt, a door opens, the reader pops their head in, and, she decapitates the reader with an efficiency that Dr. Guillotine would have admired.

This is the fifth of her nine novels I have read, and it will be difficult to top this work. Everything I have read has been excellent, so the pleasure of reading her work is just a matter of degree. The complaint as stated at the beginning is more frustration than anything else. So much appears to be shared with the reader that ultimately deception is far too mild a word, and then when you think the puzzle is complete; she adds another thousand potential pieces by bringing the story to an abrupt halt.

But the story really is quite complete. After you read what she has written a logical explanation follows. She sets the process in motion, steps back, and knows the reader will continue to follow her lead. She pulls the strings of a reader like twine on a top. Once pulled she can step back, the top continues to spin. She is as manipulative as any writer I have had the pleasure to read, she also respects her readers with the presumption they will read what she gives them, and though left wanting more, will be able to put their own finish to what she has written.

I cannot use any names, as it would ruin the piece. She produces one character that is such a brilliant fraud, that when his actions become known, his victims are left with mouths agape when they should be throttling him. As she has done in other works, she has children that are well beyond precocious and other players that the reader is routinely lead to underrate.

Ms. Penelope Fitzgerald was a great discovery for me, as I knew nothing of her or her work. She started writing late in life, and sadly died a few brief years ago. The collective work she has left behind is as good a written legacy as any writer could have left, for all who love to read.
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on 28 September 2009
It's only 187 pages long but this little book is something special. The Moscow of 1913 is evoked with love and humour, and the eccentric English family and their associates whose domestic dramas and eccentricities are played out against its backdrop are brought skilfully to life.
I can do no better than to quote Jan Morris on the back cover:
"For the life of me I can't decide how properly to respond to this book. Whether it contains a latent moral or allegorical message, or whether it is simply a tour de force of craft and imagination, I have not the faintest idea. I only know that it is one of the most skilful and utterly fascinating novels I have read for years. I cannot imagine any kind of educated reader who would not get a thrill from this gloriously peculiar book".
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on 5 February 2014
Having visited the Soviet Union in the mid 1970's, I felt as though I was back there when reading this book - but without the fear of the KGB!
Fitzgerald draws the reader into the lives of the characters immediately and what could have been a sad situation is treated with a gentle humour. She captures both the nuances of behaviour and the atmosphere of the slow ending of a Russian winter with great sensitivity
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on 15 September 2009
The Beginning of Spring is a well structured and crafted novel. For example, without giving away too much, an incident occurs on the first page of the novel and the reverse of that same incident occurs on the very last page. However, clever novelistic devices do not of themselves make a great novel. This is the first novel of Penelope Fitzgerald that I have read. It was read with the knowledge that during her writing career, Penelope Fitzgerald received high critical acclaim for most of her work. For me, however, The Beginning of Spring, whilst it is a well written novel, does not merit such high critical acclaim.

The novel has a simple straight forward plot. Set mainly in Moscow, the novel tells the story of Frank Reid who inherits his father's printing business and takes his wife Nellie to live in Moscow. Nellie leaves him taking their three children. She had planned to start a new relationship with a business colleague of her husband. When he does not show up to meet Nellie she abandons the children and pursues her separation from her husband on her own. The children are subsequently discovered at a railway station and are reunited with their father. The children's father, Frank, now has a business in decline to run and also his children to care for. Frank hires a Russian nanny, Lisa, who soon becomes the cause of problems for Frank.

Fitzgerald presets us with a middle class family saga. The family is placed the first decade of the twentieth century in a Russia that was in the early throes of upheaval and revolution. However, interesting though this world might seem, it was a world that was too narrow for me and did not reveal any broad issues that are of great importance.

Technically, Fitzgerald was a master of her craft. Her sentences are well constructed, the dialogue flows fluently and the third person narration rests easily with the dialogue. As for the characters they are well observed and drawn. With quiet subtlety we learn about the characters merits and demerits. Her description of Moscow is very good. The reader gets a good sense of being in Moscow, wandering through the streets and observing the scenes Fitzgerald describes.

However, the above strengths are far outweighed by what I consider The Beginning of Spring to be. Basically, it is a drawing room comedy of manners. It is solely concerned with the light hearted comic predicaments of a group of middle class people in the narrow confines of a domestic setting. This world was too narrow for my outlook and as a result the novel hardly engaged me.
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on 23 November 2013
Penelope Fitzgerald is a very individual writer who does a lot of research for her novels, but who wears this information lightly and weaves it into compelling stories. This is about the beginning of Spring for a family in Moscow and all the relationships woven into the family's life.
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on 4 June 2015
I think this was a strange book. There was no plot, but it was an interesting day to day life of an expatriot Briton whose wife had inexplicably left. I think it was wonderfully researched. There was the continuing mystery of the absent wife which is what kept one reading. However there was no conclusion, so was rather unsatisfactory.
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on 20 September 2015
Oh to be able to write like this, so spare but poetic , witty and humorous but at the same time sad and touching. The description of a year in the life of a birch wood is perfection , the characters are delightful and pre- revolutionary Moscow comes vividly to life.
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