Back-of-the-book blurb: 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.
It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love; that she and her dearest companions became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.
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. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I was hooked on Russian Winter from its opening pages, when we meet Nina Revskaya peering out the window of her Back Bay home. A prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet in Stalinist-era Russia, Nina is now in her 80s and confined to a wheelchair. She at first seems crotchety when she meets with Drew Brooks to discuss the auction of her jewelry collection, the proceeds of which shall benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation.
Turn the page, and a bit of Nina’s history – perhaps an explanation for that aloofness and lack of warmth - is revealed. We’re in Moscow seventy years earlier as Nina and her best friend, Vera, are brought to the Bolshoi to audition for a school for future ballerinas. The scene ends when they return to their apartment building to learn that Vera’s parents are “gone.” Did they leave voluntarily, to escape to a better life? Or were they taken away on suspicion of not conforming with the rules of the General Secretary?
Kalotay takes the reader seamlessly from one storyline to the other, doling out pieces of Nina’s history in a captivating narrative that captures the emotions of the time – fear of doing or saying something that might be misinterpreted, pride in performing and boosting morale, and moments of pure happiness free of political implications. We stand with Nina in bread lines, sit with her as she mends her costumes, and celebrate with her as she is rewarded for her skill and obedience by being promoted to higher and higher positions within the troupe.
This excerpt is from early in the book, before Nina has been promoted. It struck me because of all the information Kalotay packs in this one dense paragraph. The urgency of the staccato sentences create a rhythm similar to what daily life may have been like (p 125):
A new year begins, dirty icicles hanging from eaves, sun waiting until ten to rise. Windows shut tight for the season, wedged with wadded cotton that soon turns black with grime. Mother makes her rounds, to work, to the shops, to the hospital and the prison, to this friend and that relative, while Nina hurries back and forth, in the mornings to company class and the mandatory Marxist lectures, in the afternoons to rehearsal, and in the evenings to perform. Not to mention compulsory “community service,” long bumpy bus rides to distant villages to perform for peasant laborers, or for factory workers in big industrial plants. For extra money, there are private concerts at clubs, and performances at institutes and academies, scurrying from concert hall to concert hall. When she has worked her muscles too hard, her entire body feels as if it is trembling inside. Knots in her legs, hips, feet. Stockings bloody at the toes. Some days everything comes together beautifully, her body obeys and even surprises her with its achievements. Other days it disappoints her. She is forever cleaning her toe shoes and ironing her costumes, stitching elastics and ribbons onto her slippers. Listening to notes after rehearsal, shedding occasional tears. The frustration of unattainable perfection …
Alternating with the story of Nina’s life in Russia is the present-day story of the jewelry auction and all the excitement and intrigue that surround it. A particular suite of amber jewels has raised interest with Drew, the auction house associate who is overseeing Nina’s project; the interest is is heightened when an anonymous donor adds another piece he believes may be part of the same collection.
In an effort to create a personal background story that will “wow” bidders, Drew meets with the donor, a professor of the Russian language. These characters have depth and personality, as do the characters we meet in the historic sections of the novel. Kalotay injects them with backgrounds and anecdotes, making even supposed minor players a cast of fully-developed and interesting characters.
The people, the settings, the history, and – most of all – the clever layered plot make Russian Winter a rare ‘un-put-down-able’ novel. I didn’t want it to end, turning the pages as I learned about daily life under Stalin, the arts in Russia, and an inside look at a contemporary auction house.
About the author: Daphne Kalotay’s debut novel, Russian Winteris newly published; you can find discussion questions, request a book group meeting via Skype, read an exclusive interview, or an excerpt of the novel on the author’s blog. Her collection of short fiction, Calamity and Other Stories, is available in paperback. She lives in the Boston area – check out this homage to her local bookstore!
I reviewed Russian Winter as part of a blog tour; visit these other blogs for more reviews, interviews, guest posts and giveaways:
|8/30/10||Story Circle Book Reviews||Review & Interview|
|9/2/10||Bookin’ With Bingo||Review & Giveaway|
|9/5/10||Lisa’s Other Bookshelf||Review|
|9/6/10||Bookin’ With Bingo||Interview|
|9/7/10||S. Krishna’s Books||Review & Giveaway|
|9/7/10||Book Club Girl||Review|
|9/8/10||Beth Fish Reads||Review|
|9/8/10||Reading Group Guides||Guest Post|
|9/9/10||Reading the Past||Review|
|9/9/10||Booking Mama||Guest Post & Review|
|9/13/10||Lori’s Reading Corner||Review|
|9/14/10||Living Read Girl||Review|
FTC disclosure: review copy provided by the publisher.