Sunday, September 5, 2010

Neither Hot Nor Cold: Russian Winter

Daphne Kalotay rolls lots of recognizably Russian motifs into her debut novel, Russian Winter: ballet (the Bolshoi, no less), amber jewelry, poetry and poets, secrets, and wariness among friends. Russian Winter’s main character, Nina Revskaya, connects them all.

In the novel’s historical track, set in Stalin-era Moscow, Nina is a Bolshoi Ballet ballerina whose poet husband gives her jewelry. Wariness comes in through arrests and informants. In the novel’s contemporary track, Nina has retired in Boston and donated her jewels for an auction to raise money for the Boston Ballet. Through the auction, Nina meets Drew, a divorced auction house employee, and re-encounters Grigori, a widower and Russian √©migr√© who was adopted at birth and never knew the identity of his birth parents. Grigori, a professor, also translated Nina’s husband’s poetry.

I didn’t love Russian Winter – much of the characterization and plot felt as predictably worn and creaky to me as Nina’s aged joints – but I did find the book fairly absorbing. It lived up to the “page-turner” description on the front flap of the book that HarperCollins sent to me, though I was disappointed that Russian Winter felt more plotted than organic, as if Kalotay carefully meted out details to keep the reader interested in learning her characters’ secrets.

Thanks to my interest in Russia, I found the chapters in Moscow more compelling than the chapters in Boston, though some material felt more like it came from Kalotay’s research than her characters. (Notes at the end of the book confirmed my suspicions.) I thought some of the lowest-key Russian scenes – like night swimming at the dacha – were the best in the book. In Boston, I had no interest in jewelry auction details and I tired of Nina’s crankiness. That’s not to say it felt unnatural: Nina is essentially housebound, and her curmudgeonliness almost made her seem like a native New Englander.

Russian Winter is filled with romantic, professional, familial, adversarial, and Platonic relationships, and I think Kalotay is at her best focusing on characters’ loyalties and trust during the Stalin era, demonstrating how doubt poisoned friendships and lives. She also shows plenty of beauty and kindnesses, as with certain telegrams that Nina’s mother sends. Perhaps best of all, Kalotay presents a sincere and sensitive portrayal of episodes, both light and heavy, in the lives of Nina and the people around her.

For more:

  • An excerpt from Russian Winter.
  • An interview with Daphne Kalotay here.
  • Library Journal loved Russian Winter: Review
  • Publisher Harper Collins organized a blog tour for Russian Winter. The previous post, a review, is on She Is Too Fond of Books here. Tomorrow’s post will an interview with the author on Bookin’ with Bingo. BTW, I noticed Bookin’ with Bingo has a review of Babushka’s Beauty Secrets: reading the review brought back memories of similar advice I heard when I lived in Russia.
  • My Russian literature blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, has posts about books on related topics: Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers (very readable nonfiction about the Stalin era), my top 10 greatest hits of post-1917 Russian fiction, and Irina Grekova’s Ship of Widows (difficulties of communal apartment living). I wrote about Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, a much different kind of book about mistrust, on this blog, here.

Disclosure: Thank you very much to Harper Collins for providing me with an advance review copy of Russian Winter at my request. (I’d hoped to get an ARC signed at Book Expo America but arrived too late after getting stuck in traffic somewhere in sweltering Massachusetts!)

Up next: Dalia Sofer’s Septembers in Shiraz, which I found disappointing.

Photo of the interior of the Bolshoi Theater from AndreasPraefcke, via Wikipedia.

4 comments:

  1. curmudgeonliness almost made her seem like a native New Englander.>>>

    OUCH, LOL. That's truth in journalism!

    I feel much the same as you, and I was particularly fond of Nina's mother.

    Much of it was sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey stereotypical Russian details. I actually enjoyed the jewelry talk though...

    Great review!

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  2. Aww, sorry this didn't work out for you. I *loved* it, and the jewelry aspect was one of the winning bits for me. Regardless of whether there were new details of Stalinist Russia or not, I connected with the characters and felt that Kalotay's doling out of details kept me fully engaged.

    So happy that there are tons of books to chose from, and not everyone needs to love the same novels. :)

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  3. Thank you, Amy! The funny thing about curmudgeonliness is that it's very often considered a positive trait around here. (Says the native New Englander!)

    Yes, I also thought Nina's mother was a good secondary character. She seemed much more real than, for example, Grigori's poet friend. (Though I appreciated his love for Dunkin' Donuts!) I agree with you that many of the Russian details felt pretty standard. As for the jewelry, I guess I'm one of those people who would rather wear it than read about it! And now I keep running into books with jewelry: The Septembers of Shiraz has a jeweler character and the Russian book I'm reading includes stolen jewelry.

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  4. Thank you for your comment, Beth F! I'm glad you *did* love the book -- it always makes me happy when people enjoy writing and reading about Russia, and this book addresses some very important themes. Even if the book didn't work for me on some levels, I certainly enjoyed it on others. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough in my post!

    Beth F's review of Russian Winter is here. I particularly liked the final phrase of her review: "I feel as if this novel had been written just for me."

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