A family secret revealed 40 years ago by a grandmother to her grandson is now an acclaimed Russian historical fiction novel. "A Hundred Sweet Promises" is the tale of the author’s grandfather, Nasrosoltan, a famed composer, who on the eve of World War I travels from Persia to Russia to study classical music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with such masters as Rimsky-Korsakov. While there, Nasrosoltan falls in love with a Romanov princess, but the royalty surrounding him considers this a forbidden love. Unexpectedly, the Tsar gets involved, and Nasrosoltan suddenly finds himself in a battle between head and heart while being carried forward on a wave of destiny toward an uncertain future. A novel based on a true story set against the backdrop of the final days of Imperial Russia.
Plot/Idea: This plot of ill-fated love crosses cultural and socioeconomic boundaries to deliver a resonant story. Though the pace is leisurely, Haddad’s depiction of traditional romance elements juxtaposed with classical music is stunning.
Prose: Rich with poignant prose and vivid descriptions that illuminate early twentieth-century life, this novel is a lyrical ballad to love set against the Romanov era in Russia. Haddad’s writing style is immersive and elevates his character presentation in a subtle way, transcending some of the more mundane plot points with its elegant solemnity.
Originality: Despite the conventional premise of this historically-inspired fictionalized romance, Haddad splashes an intriguing mix of realism and dreamy elements into the text that heighten the novel’s impact.
Character Development/Execution: Haddad’s characters struggle to find their footing in such a complex environment, and Nasrollah’s ardor pales in comparison to the impassioned Princess Irina. Despite some aloofness in development, by the end of the story their emotional weight is significant.
Date Submitted: April 19, 2022
Inspired by true stories passed down from the author’s grandmother about his grandfather, Nasrosoltan, Haddad’s novel uses fiction to bring life to family history. His portraits of Persian influence on Russian court life at the turn of the 20th century are compelling, and family photographs add a personal touch that readers will appreciate. That history adds power to Haddad’s depiction of Nasrosoltan yearning for the vibrancy of St. Petersburg and his talented peers or his thrill at returning during “babe leto, or ‘grandmother’s summer,’ those rare days that summer’s comforts extended well into the fall.”
As a storyteller, Haddad relies heavily on exposition, with incidents often summarized rather than fully dramatized, and the characters have a habit of recounting anecdotes that are not entirely connected to their development or the needs of the story. This, along with some clunky dialogue—“What have you done? The governor is terribly upset that you escorted Shamsi to Margoon and were alone with her for two nights”—diminish the impact of the narrative. But the plot and tone are quite operatic, which will appeal to readers who enjoy dramatic historical fiction.
Takeaway: A deeply personal historical novel blending music, love, and turn-of-the-century revolutionary politics.
Great for fans of: Vanora Bennet’s Midnight in St Petersburg, Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: B
An ambitious Persian composer falls illicitly in love with the Russian princess he tutors in this novel based on a true story.
Nasrollah Minbashian travels from Tehran, the city of his birth, to Russia with his father, Salar Moazaz, to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under the direction of renowned composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. Nasrollah remains there for seven years, falls deeply in love with the city and its cosmopolitan culture, and regrets leaving when the time comes. Back at home, Nasrollah flourishes as a musician in Tehran and is appointed the director of a military band. The Persian king bestows on him the honorary title Nasrosoltan. Still, he pines to return to St. Petersburg and become a daring composer like Stravinsky, though his “domineering father” wants him to settle down and start a family. Nasrollah finally returns to Russia but gambles his way into dire financial straits, and he’s compelled to take a job as piano tutor to Princess Irina Alexandrovna, the czar’s niece. Nasrollah is unhappy with the assignment, but he eventually falls for Irina while realizing that their love is almost certainly doomed. Staying in St. Petersburg would be the fulfillment of a dream and probably torpedo his career. “You know it was always my dream to live and compose in this great city. But I now realize I will remain a nobody if I stay here, just a piano tutor to some. Even though I believe I am a worthy composer, there are hundreds of composers in this city who cannot make a living through their work.”
Haddad bases the novel on his own grandfather of the same name, relating a story he was told while in Tehran in 1978 in advance of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. He astutely sets the drama of Nasrollah’s love affair against both the tumult of his time and his grandfather’s time; in the early 20th century, both Russia and Tehran were experiencing profound political discontent as calls for reform became increasingly urgent. Nasrollah is an enticingly complex character—musically gifted and deeply ambitious, even haughty, he learns a remarkable humility from the experience of lost love. In florid terms that flirt with melodrama, Haddad depicts his anguish: “Nasrosoltan’s whole being felt pained, knowing full well there was no remedy: the pain that seems it will never depart the body, which is ever-present and relentless, like a thief, robbing the victim of sleep, appetite, and any joy or purpose.” "...However, this remains an exceedingly intelligent tale that thoughtfully juxtaposes the maddening effects of romantic love with the violent paroxysms of political insurrection. Furthermore, the reader is given a rare literary treat: a peek into distinct revolutionary periods—Russia and Iran in the early years of the 20th century and Iran in the century’s last quarter.
A dramatically affecting novel that is also politically astute."