Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Russian Winter: A NovelFrom the Inside Flap:

When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has 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 before.

It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions--Gersh, a dangerously irreverent composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina's closest friend--became victims of Stalinist aggression; that a terrible discovery led to a deadly act of betrayal--and to an ingenious escape that eventually brought her to the city of Boston.

Nina has hidden her dark secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate director at the Boston auction house; and Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor who believes that a unique set of amber jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners find themselves unraveling a literary mystery whose answers will hold life-changing consequences for them all.

My Review:

Nina Revskaya, a reclusive, retired ballerina living in Boston, has donated the wealth of jewels she's collected over a lifetime in the spotlight to be auctioned for charity, but when the auction house's representative, Drew Brooks, attempts to learn more about the jewels, Nina is cold and uncooperative. When Grigori Solodin gives the auction house an amber pendant that he believes once belonged to Nina, she becomes downright hostile. As Drew and Grigori work together to determine the true origins of the magnificent pendant and to discover why Nina refuses to admit it belonged to her, Nina is reluctantly drawn back into a world of memories from a part of her life she has tried to forget.

Through Nina's recollections, her whirlwind life as a young rising star of the Bolshoi Ballet is revealed, along with her romantic memories of the early days of her marriage. She seems to have it all, which is no small feat in Stalinist Russia. But Nina is never satisfied, and continually chooses her ambition to be a star over her relationships with those she holds most dear: her husband, her mother, her best friend. Her inattention to those relationships leads to a sort of semi-awareness of what's going on around her and by the time she wakes up she can't see the whole picture and she rushes to conclusions and actions that have a devastating effect.

I thought I had this book's big secrets figured out from the start. I was pretty sure I knew all along why Nina refused to help Grigori and who he really was. I was sick to my stomach as the story reached its climax because I thought I knew what was coming, which was exactly what Nina thought, too, but then the reader learns the whole ugly truth, and so does Nina, and I felt sick again. This story is a pretty good testament to the power of jealousy and mistrust, and the ability of one simple action made in a split second to alter the lives of many.

This book starts out a little slowly, but it builds momentum and races along to the fateful moment when Nina decides to defect and carries out her daring and dangerous plan, while in the present-day storyline Nina realizes that the bitterness and sadness she has carried in her heart all this time has been for naught, and she must accept responsibility for the consequences of her rash actions.

Based on story alone I would have given this 5-Stars, because I became completely emotionally involved and I was engrossed by the descriptions of the ballet and life in Russia and the history of the jewels. I was fascinated by Nina's memories of Stalinist Russia. I never would have thought that artists were given preferential treatment by a government regime that was determined to stamp out creative thought. But it soon becomes apparent that these artists: poets, composers, authors, and dancers, are expected to create in the name of the country, to produce art in line with Stalin's ideas, to inspire the populace to be dutiful citizens. And that preferential treatment also puts a spotlight on them, along with a lot of pressure to comply or face Stalin's wrath.

However, I couldn't ignore some awkward transitions to huge chunks of backstory in the present-day story arc that were very distracting and seemed unimportant to the plot, and I couldn't find a lot to get excited about in Drew's and Grigori's characters, although they are instrumental in bringing the different elements of the story together and forcing Nina to relive those last days in Russia and to confront the truth she's hidden from for so long. But I can get over those complaints to enjoy a good story, and Nina's story is an excellent one.

Rating:  4.5 Stars out of 5

*Please note: This review references an advance copy received from the publisher, and therefore the final published copy may differ. Though I received this book from the publisher, these are my honest and unbiased thoughts, and I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.

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