Moura Budberg (born Maria Zakrevskya in Estonia in the 1890s) was considered the ‘Mata Hari’ of Russia as she counted many infamous men of the early 20th-century as her lovers (including British spy Robert Lockhart, Maxim Gorky, and H.G. Wells), probably spied for both the British and the Russians, and was known to fabricate most aspects of her life. No one, not even her lovers or her children ever knew the truth about who she truly was. (Interesting side note. According to this article, Moura was the great, great aunt of current MP Nick Clegg.)
This book felt awkward, like one extremely long encyclopedia entry. Novelized portions are sprinkled in between textbook-style passages (complete with footnotes and occasional quoted citations) that summarize vast quantities of backstory. Then the novel prose appears again, followed by much more background. This makes the pacing slow, the suspense lacking, and the facts heavy. Moura the individual remains so undeveloped that she lacks the substance to command a reader’s attention. And “dangerous”? We get few tangible facts about her, meaning that she remains guilty of little more than having many lovers and passing on political gossip. How is that “dangerous”?
That is not to say that this subject isn’t fascinating – she is. No one truly knows what this woman was about, why she was so alluring, who she spied for, and how she survived, and that is a worthy subject indeed, but there were simply too many “maybe/maybe nots” to captivate one’s interest. Either make up Moura’s story, filling in the blanks with probable “could have happened” scenarios to make this a fast-paced, espionage adventure story, loosely based on a real person. Or else make this a “here is what we know”, more factual account of this woman’s life. Trying to sit in both camps doesn’t work. Personally, I would have enjoyed a retelling from one of her lovers’ POV, as if he is telling her tale from his deathbed. Maybe he tells the truth, and maybe he doesn’t, but it’s still a more entertaining picture of Moura than we see here.
Amazon link is here.