Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return by Vera and Donald Blinken
Hardcover: 350 pages
Publisher: State University of New York Press (February 5, 2009)
Back-of-the-book blurb: Vera and the Ambassador is both a compelling portrait of a U.S. embassy in a post-Cold War former Soviet satellite and a personal story of a refugee’s escape and triumphant return. Vera and Donald Blinken’s dual memoir openly details their challenges, setbacks, and victories as they worked in tandem to advance America’s interests in Eastern Europe and to restore a former Soviet satellite state to a pre-Communist level of prosperity.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: I have mixed reactions to Vera and the Ambassador; please stick around for the entire review, ultimately I recommend the book.
I really like reading personal memoir, which I am clear to differentiate from celebrity memoir, that tell-all genre which tends to be peppered with recognizable names and addresses – the latest and greatest from the tabloids who meet at the corner table at the hottest new restaurant.
Vera and the Ambassador falls between my two (admittedly unscientific) categorization schema. While not celebrity in the sense that it’s not gossipy or full of scandalous behavior, the book has its fair share of name dropping and fancy dinners and events. Before Donald Blinken’s appointment as Ambassador to Hungary, he served on the Board of Directors of several well-known institutions, including the New York Public Library and the New York Philharmonic. The couple rubbed shoulders with politicians and philanthropists on a regular basis, and were comfortable in this environment. Once the Blinkens were sent to Hungary, of course, the socializing and entertaining became more carefully orchestrated, but the names are still dropped very casually into vignettes that tell about the events.
And they really are vignettes, rather than a comprehensive narrative. Some of the micro-memoirs are only a few paragraphs long, with no transition to the next section; thankfully, a graphic visually separates one little piece from the next. Once I got used to the pattern, and read for content rather than for style, I could appreciate it more. As far as the way the memoir is related, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The memoir is written in four parts, alternating narration by Vera and Donald Blinken. The sections told from her point of view read more like a true memoir to me; that is, more personal and less stilted. This is perhaps due to her unique history of escaping Soviet-occupied Hungary as a child, believing that she’d never see her homeland again. When she and Donald first return to Hungary, as tourists in 1987, she retraces her steps to her old neighborhood and notes what has stayed the same, as if in a time capsule, and what has changed or disappeared. She speaks to a local woman, and thinks:
Here was somebody I had never seen before who shared the same distant memories. But I had escaped, and she had not. The feeling I had had all my life was now piercingly poignant: How lucky I was to live in freedom, to have such a full life, to be able to travel all over the world, to see and experience so much that to this woman were just dreams, perhaps not even dreams.
The book brings the reader through a primer on the process of appointing an Ambassador. We learn the delicate balance between representing the United States and the desire to help the individuals of a country which is only just beginning to rise above the shadow of communism.
In the words of Donald Blinken, “It is not the applause when you arrive that counts, it is the judgment when you leave.” It seems that by all accounts, the Blinkens began their time in Hungary to the sound of applause, and both the works they completed and the relationships they forged have left a very positive image of his three and a half years in the post.
Despite the somewhat choppy format, I recommend Vera and the Ambassador for its history of Hungary from 1950 to the present day, with of course, special consideration paid to the years of Donald Blinken’s Ambassadorship. Vera Blinken’s very personal connection to the country of her birth and her return, in a position to make a difference in the lives of the people, is compelling.
Read an excerpt of Vera and the Ambassador at the book’s website. You may be able to tell when the narration switches from Vera’s point of view to Donald’s.
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FTC disclosure: review copy provided by an independent publicist.