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The Russian Concubine Reader’s Guide

By Kate Furnivall

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall


Questions and Topics for Discussion


At once a sweeping epic love story and a stunning literary debut, The Russian Concubine describes the lives of two generations of women, both struggling against their destiny. Valentina Ivanova, formerly counted among Russia’s elite, watched as the Bolsheviks captured her husband. Able to purchase the life of her young daughter Lydia, Valentina takes her to Northern China, to the whites-only International Settlement, where, as a lounge piano player, she struggles to make ends meet in the only way she knows how… Now a teenager and possessed of a fierce spirit and wild independence, Lydia Ivanova meets the young Communist Chang An Lo after he saves her life, and falls in love with all of the passion in her young soul. With their relationship comes danger, from both sides of the political struggle, but both are powerless to end it.

“I read it in one sitting! Not only a gripping love story, but a novel which captures the sights, smells, hopes and desires of Russia at the dawn of the 20th century, and pre-Revolutionary China, so skillfully that readers will feel they are there.” —Kate Mosse

“The wonderfully drawn and all-too-human characters struggle to survive in a world of danger and bewildering change…caught between cultures, ideologies—and the growing realization that only the frail reed of love is strong enough to withstand the destroying winds of time.” —Diana Gabaldon


Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and currently lives in Devon, England. Married and the mother of two sons, she has worked in publishing and television advertising. She drew inspiration for The Russian Concubinefrom her mother’s experiences as a White Russian refugee in China.

  • Despite her being a European girl, and therefore less than nothing to his people, Chang saves Lydia’s life at the beginning of the novel. Why do you think he does so?
  • Lydia’s stubborn bravery at the beginning of The Russian Concubine is described as foolhardy by many of the people she encounters. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that other people’s opinion of her changes by the end of the book? Why?
  • How does Theo serve as a bridge between the Chinese and Western worlds he lives in? How does acting in that capacity take its toll on him towards the end of the novel?
  • Discuss the sacrifices and moral compromises that each character makes for what he or she believes is the greater good. For example, Theo becomes an opium runner in order to earn money to keep his school open, educating the European children in China. Do you think that the characters’ actions in their respective situations help make them stronger people, or do their actions lessen them as humans?
  • Lydia and Chang get caught up in the turmoil of the political situation in the 1920s. Do you think that the poverty levels in China made it easy for young men to become Communists? Did the presence of the expatriate Russians make a difference in their political leanings? Discuss how Chang’s Communist beliefs war with his love for Lydia.
  • Toward the end of the novel, Valentina reveals the secret of Lydia’s scholarship to the Willoughby Academy. Do you think that her sacrifice for her daughter is an example of her strength as a mother, or her weakness as a woman?
  • When Lydia first meets Liev Popkov, she’s facing him at a line-up after her lie regarding the stolen necklace at the Ulysses Club gets him arrested. Later, she hires him as her bodyguard, but their relationship develops into a friendship beyond employer/employee. Why do you think that Liev becomes so protective of Lydia after he meets her?
  • In many ways, Alfred is the first stable male influence in Lydia’s life. What kind of life do you think Lydia would have led had Alfred entered her life earlier? Do you feel his nature/personality was as influential as his money? Does his money play a positive or a negative role in shaping their relationship?
  • The theme of freedom is prevalent throughout the novel. In what ways are Lydia and Chang caged, even before they are kidnapped by the Black Snakes? How does their love for each other help to set them free? Do you think that their relationship mirrors the political situation in China at all?
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