Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

I was nervous to read this book for two reasons: first, I read Doctor Zhivago last winter and hated it and worried I would hate this book about Russia and winter too; and second, I have met Daphne Kalotay and found her to be really lovely and so was worried about what I would say to her if I didn't like the book. Luckily, my worries were wildly unfounded, as I loved it.

Russian Winter is the story of Nina Revskaya, a former prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, who is now elderly, friendless, living in Boston alone with her aches and pains and jewels. She decides to auction off her jewelry collection. The woman at the auction house coordinating Nina's sale, Drew, is then contacted by someone who claims to have an amber necklace that matches a bracelet and pair of earrings from Nina's set, and Drew sets out to investigate their provenance. Meanwhile, a Russian professor at a nearby university has been trying for years to talk to Nina about her husband, a poet, of who he is an expert, who died in Soviet Russia shortly after Nina defected. Nina refuses. But as these elements swirl around her, Nina's memories of the past rear up and at times overwhelm her.

It was fascinating to read about Stalinist Russia. Nina and her group of friends, all artists, represented an unusual group of Russians in the first place, as the place of artists in Communism was never clear, as what benefit to society they brought was not concrete. It was also truly eye-opening to read about Russians who adored Stalin, almost worshipped him, who bought the party line hook, line, and sinker, and tried very, very hard in spite of great hardships and terrible living conditions to be good Communists. That's a side of Communism us Westerners are rarely exposed to.

I loved the descriptions of the ballets (I not only took ballet through high school as a child, but I actually had an Anna Pavlova doll!) And poetry isn't my thing so I was thrilled there wasn't much of that. Nina now, the elderly Nina, is a very hard person to like, but meeting the young Nina in her memories, gave me much empathy for the old Nina, who has to live with mistakes she made. We're of course not privy of all the trauma in her past until the very end, and I admit that the twist at the end I kind of guessed, but then the twist has a twist, which is awesome and I didn't guess at all.

Although the book was long, it didn't feel like it. It read smoothly and swiftly, and the descriptions were spot-on and really made you feel like you were there. The characters were well-drawn and three-dimensional; I particularly liked Nina's mother-in-law who was one for the ages.

If you want to be swept away to another time and place, this is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was sad when it ended. I am very much looking forward to Ms. Kalotay's next novel!

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.

1 comment:

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

Another book that has come highly recommended, that sits forlornly on my shelf, unread.