Martin Edelweiss flees Soviet Russia with his mother in 1919 and enjoys his new cultured, literate life in Western Europe, but a few personal setbacks stir in him a dangerous and potentially self-destructive impulse to sneak back into his native country. Martin's childhood in St. Petersburg in pre-World War I Russia is comfortable. His family is middle-class. They have plenty to eat and aren't living in the streets, and while he feels little love for his cold and distant father, he is extremely close with his mother, Sofia. While still relatively young, though, Martin's parents divorce. This is no great surprise to Martin, but then his father dies and, soon after, the Bolsheviks begin to take power.
Realizing the threat, his mother flees with him out of the city. They take little with them and keep having to flee a little farther with each step, from Crimea, to Greece, and finally, at long last, to permanent refuge in Switzerland, where Martin's uncle and future stepfather welcome them into his home. Martin is enchanted, and a little overwhelmed, with Western Europe. The opportunities. The collision of so many cultures. Eager for an elite education, Martin is sent to London live with another émigré family, the Zilanovs, and enrolls at Cambridge.
Martin throws himself into his studies and proves a capable, if not spectacular, student. He is especially intrigued by a professor of Russian literature, whose views on Martin's homeland confuse and fascinate him. Here, the novel preoccupies itself with the typical college fare: long academic discussions between eager students, thwarted love, sporting events, and the occasional fake pregnancy/blackmail.
Martin comes out of this period with a close friend in a fellow student -- a Brit named Darwin -- and a growing infatuation with Sonia Zilanov, the daughter of the family with whom he's been staying. She does not seem all that interested in much beyond a friendship, but this doesn't stop Martin from continually proposing to her. Together, they travel through Europe, with Martin passing as various nationalities, but never his native Russian. After Sonia takes up with an obnoxious young writer, and betrays to him an idea Martin shared with Sonia in good faith, Martin begins to feel a disenchantment with Western Europe and its people, and in its place comes a growing fascination with the land of his childhood.
Despite it being illegal (and highly dangerous) to enter Soviet Russia, Martin decides he's going to do just that, and enlists the help of a intelligence operative to do just that. Martin never quite feels as if the operative is giving him honest advice, though, but he's committed to this plan and there's no backing out now. He gives Darwin some postcards to mail to his mother from elsewhere in Europe on his behalf, so she doesn't figure out where he's gone, and then he travels to Latvia, intending to sneak into Russia across the border near Riga.
Darwin agrees, but he's nervous for his friend. After several weeks and no word from Martin, Darwin tries to retrace his steps to Riga, but it's as if Martin has disappeared entirely. Expecting the worst, the novel ends with Darwin reluctantly trudging toward Martin's mother's house, in Switzerland, to tell her that her son is missing and presumed dead.
Best part of story, including ending:
Knowing that this is a thinly-veiled (though obviously thicker veiled in some places than others) autobiographical novel gives the book some added depth, though, even without this, it's easy to be carried away by the lucid power of Nabokov's prose. As usual.
Best scene in story:
The final scene, with Darwin approaching Sofia Edelweiss's house to tell her the horrible news, is particularly effective, since Darwin's reluctance operates on multiple levels; the truth is he frankly has no idea what has happened to Martin, or where he is, and he wrestles with just how honest (or honestly speculative) he should be with Martin's mother.
Opinion about the main character:
To be overly simplistic, if you like Nabokov, you'll like Martin Edelweiss. I like Nabokov. Therefore, I liked Martin. I liked his Nabokovianism.