Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova as Giselle at the Bolshoi

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

It's about:  According to the back cover: "When Nina Revskaya puts her remarkable jewelry collection up for auction, the former Bolshoi Ballet star finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland, and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed her life half a century earlier.  It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of dance and fell in love, and where, faced with Stalinist aggression, a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal - and an ingenious escape to the West.
Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime.  But now Drew Brooks, an inquisitive associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor who believes Nina's jewels hold the key to unlocking his past, begin to unravel her story- setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all."

I thought: Woah!  Why haven't I heard more about this book?  It is a superbly researched, complex, yet clearly-told saga, and I cannot for the life of me understand why it wasn't a huge smash hit bestseller.  It has everything: love, loss, intrigue, the arts, enduring and dynamic characters, a decades-old family mystery, Soviets squelching the proletariat (and everyone else)... What's not to like?  Kalotay's style is straightforward, but laced with just the right tinges of drama.  A story like this could have devolved into melodrama, but it didn't.  The characters' thoughts and actions stayed within realistic limits.

I'd hate to give too much away because I so enjoyed the unfolding of the mysteries within the story.  Much of the narrative is flashback- Nina Revskaya reliving her life in 1940's-50's Moscow, during a period when she rose in the ranks of the Bolshoi to eventually become a star ballerina.  This book is stuffed with amazingly horrible and darkly amusing information about life in communist Russia;  I loved feeling like I was learning a lot while also being swept away by Nina's life story.  I wish I had read it before living in a post-Communist country.  I feel I understand current Russian culture better after having read all the history within Russian Winter.

If I had to name a complaint, it'd be that title.  Russian Winter doesn't really say anything about the story.  It's such a blah title that I had trouble getting excited about starting the book.  I held onto it for over a year before finally picking it up.  As usual, I don't have any better ideas (alas, I have a critical mind rather than a creative one).  Russian Amber would have been more meaningful, at least.  Hm...   I've got it!  How about this: In Soviet Russia, Ballet Dances You!

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Russophiles and ballet people will love this the most, but it's so accessible that I certainly wouldn't limit my recommendation there.  Check it out if you like to learn about history while you read fiction.  Even if you don't go ga-ga over the story, the research will engage you.  This is a smart but not a heady read, so I'd also recommend it for vacations and holidays.

Warnings:  Unmarried people sleep together and there are a few ensuing abortions.  Nothing even remotely descriptive or uncomfortable to read.  

Favorite excerpts: “...She looked at the people around her and felt not just that she was surrounded by strangers, but that she herself was strange, somehow, that something kept her from ever fully bridging the gap between who she was and who all these other people, making their way through the very same day, were.”

“No, solitude did not trouble her. She could spend long minutes gazing out the window, hours listening to the BBC on the public radio station. She relished the very texture of her privacy, its depth of space and freedom, much of an entire day hers alone.” 

What I'm reading nextPerfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner