When I picked up Alexandra Popoff’s The Wives, I had just reread The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Karamazov was hilariously uncouth and Smerdyakov unctuously repellent. The portraits of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha were complex and psychologically acute. But the women characters! Virtually every one was histrionic, shallow, and just plain tiresome. So it was rather mystifying to read in Popoff’s book that in 1880 Dostoyevsky had received a laurel wreath from some female students who “praised [him for] the spiritual strength of the Russian woman.”

This gap between life and art is what Popoff seeks to fill—but doesn’t quite—in this series of essays on six literary wives: Anna Dostoyevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Elena Bulgakov, Véra Nabokov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. Access to Soviet archives and Popoff’s fluency in Russian bring new...

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