- The cover. Of course. It’s gorgeous. I love the deep velvety blue. If I could have hair just like that up in a chignon, I would right this minute. The beautiful necklace worn on her back. I’ve never seen anyone do that. Smitten.
- Kayleigh George from HarperCollins said that reading this book was like eating chocolate. Need I say more.
- It’s about a ballerina. Unlike a lot of girls I knew, surprisingly, I wanted to be a ballerina for a couple of years. If Mary Lou Retton never came along, I might still be dancing!
- It’s about Russia. There’s just something about Russian novels and Russian history that I find fascinating.Okay, so it’s not actually a Russian novel, but I’d never read a book about Russia during this particular time period.
- Jewelry. I don’t have or desire much in the way of fine jewelry, but I do appreciate unique pieces. And none of the jewelry featured in this book is run of the mill.
So, on to the review:
Retired Bolshoi ballerina, Nina Revskaya, has decided to auction off her famed jewelry collection and donate the proceeds to the Boston Ballet. While cataloging her collection for the auction house where she works, Drew Brooks meets Russian translator, Grigori Solodin who claims to have an amber necklace that matches the earings and bracelet that are part of Revskaya’s collection. Nina refuses to talk about the past and any possible connection between the amber pieces. Through Nina’s flashbacks to her life in the Bolshoi during Stalin’s reign and Drew and Grigori’s investigations into the amber, Nina’s story and the betrayal and secrecy surrounding her defection begin to unfold.
Russian Winter is historical fiction at it’s best. The story alternates between Boston at the beginning of this century and Moscow in the forties and fifties. She expertly weaves the historical information into the story. Both locations felt authentic to me. Nina may not be a very likable character at the beginning of the book, but I couldn’t help but fall in love with her as a young dancer. Nina shows such a naivete about government workings – spying and informing – because she is so focused on her work as a ballerina. It makes her seem a little like an outsider. As she becomes more aware of what is going on around her, she has trouble negotiating that new world. The tension, hope and increasing distrust of even those she loves the most illustrate the climate of fear in the Soviet Union at the time.
I was lucky enough to see Daphne Kalotay give a great presentation about the extensive research she did for this book. It took almost 10 years to write from inkling to finish. She read countless biographies and memoirs of ballerinas and opera singers just to be able to get the little details right. She does it so well. No information dump here. As it normally does in historical fiction, those details combined with the atmosphere of the location drew me into the story.
One of my favorite scenes was when Nina meets her future husband Viktor. They meet at a party as it is breaking up. Nina had noticed Viktor earlier in the evening and as she is savoring the smell of a tangerine, he appears. They share the tangerine. The two have an immediate intimacy that is carried over to a joy ride they share with several other people. While the car is jam packed full of raucous passengers, Viktor manages to make Nina feel like they are completely alone without anyone else noticing. It feels somehow dangerous. It encapsulates their relationship in which they carve out something beautiful for themselves while they are surrounded by a world filled with hunger and suspicion.
I know some people who had a hard time getting into this book, but I think regular readers of historical fiction will love it. It broke my heart twice over, yet there is a bit of redemption as well. My only criticism was that the ending was a little abrupt. I would have loved maybe a page or two more.When I finished reading I couldn’t stop thinking about the story and how the tiniest detail might have changed the course of Nina’s life. I also feel a pretty strong desire to go see the ballet.
Russian Winter is on my top ten list of books for the year.
Have a look at these other gorgeous covers for the book: