Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book 65: Russian Winter

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Nina Revskaya, the famous Russian ballerina, emigrated to Europe and then the United States during Stalin's rule.  Now an elderly woman whose body is failing her, she had decided to auction off her jewelry collection and donate the proceeds to the arts.  Drew Brooks is the auction house representative in charge of her collection, though she finds that Nina is less than forthcoming with information regarding her past and some of her jewelry.  Grigori Solodin is a Russian professor who has devoted his life to Nina's husband's work.  Grigori believes there is a connection between himself and Nina that she has never acknowledged.  When he finds out that she has donated her jewelry, he adds a piece of his own to the auction because it seems to be part of a set.  Nina refuses to comment on this oddity, but it sets Drew on an investigation regarding the jewelry's origin.

Between the story of these three individuals, the novel also tells the story of Nina's rise in the ballet in the Soviet Union.  She spends much of her time trying to ignore the bad things that go on around her, such as when her friend Vera's parents are taken into custody the same day that Nina and Vera first try out for the ballet, and just focuses on dancing.  Eventually, she starts getting more important roles, and also meets and marries a man with some connections.  The elder Nina seems to have a rather cynical opinion of some her past friends and associates, so the reader is constantly looking for clues of what went wrong, and how exactly Grigori might fit into the picture.

All the characters in this novel have flaws, or have vulnerabilities.  Grigori, a widower, is haunted by questions of his origins; Drew, a divorcee, feels like she hasn't lived up to her parents' expectation, and Nina feels like she has done wrong in the past and been wronged.  Throughout the novel it is definitely easy to relate to the younger Nina and her interpretations of events, though this doesn't necessarily mean it is easy to feel sympathy for her.  As she goes from one stage and performance to the next, the people around her, including her husband's Jewish friend question whether and when they will be picked up by the police.  Still, she refuses to open her eyes to the repression around her.  Considering that most of the historical fiction I read tends to focus on WWII (or periods before that), it was a nice change of pace for me.  Kalotay brought the paranoia and uncertainty of life in the Soviet Union to life very well, and doesn't try to make excuses for her characters.  While I don't expect this to make any "best of" lists, it was a simple, well-written novel that told a familiar story of love, regret and misunderstandings in a compelling manner.

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