Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Russian Winter: A Novel
by Daphne Kalotay
Release Date: April 5, 2011 (Paperback)
2011 Harper Perennial
Paperback Edition; 466 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-196217-2
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Review Copy from Publisher

4 / 5 Stars

When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

My Thougths
Russian Winter: A Novel was an interesting blend of Russian history in the 1940s and early 1950s Stalinist era and modern day Boston where a former Bolshoi dancer is currently living out her retirement and learning to live with many past regrets and betrayals.  I am fascinated with the ballet, and although the novel started somewhat slowly, it didn't matter in the slightest as I savoured each word, each nuance, and just soaked up the atmosphere in Stalinist Russia.  To be honest, I preferred Nina and Viktor's story to the present-day story of Drew and Grigori and often rushed through the modern-day scenes in order to return to the past.

The novel's plotline was quite complex and intricate; I found myself having to pay close attention to events and dialogue, sometimes even re-reading things because I missed something important.  I loved how the author really respected the reader's intelligence and didn't put eveything in front of you all of the time; many of the concepts were nuanced through comments, thoughts, puns, similes, and personifications and I found myself pausing quite often to think about things as events unfolded.  And I loved the ending; it really made me think about how one action, one thought can change your world forever, and leave a chain reaction effect in your wake that can destroy many people around you, even your own life.  I loved the startling truth and the way it was revealed to Nina and the reader, not overtly, but through inferences, images, thoughts, and regrets. 

As a writer of literary fiction, Ms. Kalotay certainly does justice to this novel.  It is full of beautiful descriptive language that made me feel as if I was there in Russia, living through the trials and tribulations of the people during the Stalin regime.  The details that went into every aspect of this novel were quite amazing and I was transported back in time to a world that I can now envision quite clearly in my mind; the Bolshoi theatre, the crumbling buildings, the dasha in summer, the parties, Gersh's apartment with the spyholes drilled in the corners, and the tenseness, coldness, and alertness that bled into every aspect of their daily lives.  The people had to be so cautious all the time of what they spoke of, to whom they spoke, of whom they spoke, and it must wear on your soul after a while to be so wary all of the time.  It's a dreariness that seemed to soak into every aspect of the novel without taking anything away from the plot.  At the same time, the glory of the arts, such as music and poetry and dance, were celebrated and artists could earn a lot of extra freedoms by becoming famous.  And yet, creative expression was frowned upon and many artists struggled with the limitations imposed on the creations and the exhorbitant censorship that went into their work. 

Because of this coldness and wariness, I never felt like I developed a relationship with the characters.  It's not that I didn't care what happened to them, but I wasn't empathetic to them, if you understand what I mean.  Was this a ploy by the author to demonstrate another aspect of the Stalin regime?  I'm not sure, but I definitely liked the younger Nina to the older Nina; the younger one at least had moments where she demonstrated tenderness and pity towards others, whereby the older Nina was shaped by a country that fed fear into its citizens.  The modern day Drew and Grigori certainly had a lot going for them; I thought Drew was a more rounded out and fleshy character than some of the others and I just adored Grigori.  There was nothing heroic about him in the sense that we know heroes, but there is something compassionate and warm about him, something that touches you, and you can't help but feel as he goes through his introspection as he learns more about his real birth parents. 

Russian Winter: A Novel was a novel about betrayal and regret, and the sudden clarity that one has when one realizes that one has made a huge mistake in the past.  Beautifully written, I found the early story to be much more dramatic than the more modern one, but the jump between storylines was seamless nonetheless.  Exploring the suppression of expression in both art and words, Russian Winter explores how misunderstandings and arguments can lead to tragic consequences that affect everyone around you.  I recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in exploring things Russian, in a novel about petty jealousy, the ballet world, and love.