Tag Archives: Aging

Guest Review! “Russian Winter” by Daphne Kalotay

I’ve mentioned before my preoccupation with the role of fairy tales and folk tales in modern literature. Susan Redington Bobby, an English professor at Wesley College who specializes in just that subject, has graciously agreed to review one of her recent reads, Russian Winter. I’m thrilled to have her as a guest reviewer today!

Title: Russian Winter
Author: Daphne Kalotay
ISBN: 9780061962165
Pages: 480
Release date: September 2010
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Susan’s collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

“It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in love; but she no longer believed in it for herself.”

This simple proclamation, uttered by Drew Brooks, a character in Daphne Kalotay’s first novel, reveals an ingrained belief that haunts all three protagonists of Russian Winter. Kalotay, whose short fiction is gathered in Calamity and Other Stories, illustrates how the lives of three seemingly disconnected people become intertwined amidst a jewelry collection that the central protagonist, Nina Revskaya, has put up for auction.

While Nina’s story is the fulcrum around which the narrative spins, her past and present affect the lives of two others: Grigori Solodin, a Russian literature professor, and Drew Brooks, the Associate Director of Fine Jewelry for the auction house that prepares Revskaya’s pieces for presentation.

Polyphonic narration strengthens Kalotay’s work, encouraging the reader’s immersion into the story while the author’s point of view recedes into the background. What remains is a commingling of voices, with Nina’s narration being the most complex as she reminisces and relives her past–from her childhood dancer’s training, through her courtship and marriage to poet Viktor Elsin, to her defection from Soviet Russia on the eve of discovering that her husband may have had an affair.

Scribed in the present tense, these passages are lyrical and filled with striking attention to the smallest details of physical and emotional sensations. They form a sharp contrast to the more succinct and matter-of fact present-day musings of the aging dancer, now in her eighties, as she sits confined to a wheelchair, in near-constant physical, and, as it turns out, emotional pain, emblematic of baggage from her past.

Interestingly, her present is penned in the past tense, which, while initially unexpected, seems appropriate. I suspect that Kalotay uses tense deliberately to reflect how much more metaphorically “alive” Nina feels in her past than her present.

Of course, her reliance on pain pills also points to a literal reason that her memories seem more vivid; at one point, Nina’s nurse Cynthia interrupts her thoughts with, “So, what happened with him?” Nina suddenly feels as if she has woken up and cannot remember whether she was dreaming or speaking aloud, and she asks herself, “Was this old age, then, at last? Not merely advancing years but true old-lady-ness, dementia, the past gradually overtaking present?”

I became transfixed when this incident occurred halfway through the novel. I wondered how much of what I had read thus far was in her mind versus spoken aloud to her nurse. I questioned how reliable a narrator she had been all along. Were her reflections embellished out of nostalgia? Did her off-and-on medication habit affect the veracity of her tale?

However, my questions remained unanswered as this thread is dropped as quickly as it is introduced, and I found myself disappointed that Kalotay missed this opportunity to explore Nina’s narrative reliability.

Despite this trail of breadcrumbs that simply disappears, Kalotay seamlessly floats between her characters’ lives and proves that all are connected, not just through the jewelry, but through similar approaches to love and work.

Nina, Grigori, and Drew, all consummate professionals, have thrown themselves completely into their chosen careers in misguided attempts to insulate themselves from truths they cannot face or the looming specter of loneliness. All three characters’ feelings about romantic love seem deeply affected by their pasts, so much so that they are stuck in patterns from which they cannot escape. Nina is unable to form a lasting relationship with another after she believes that Viktor betrayed her; Grigori cannot move past the tragic death of his beloved wife Christine; and Drew, now divorced, has never experienced that all-encompassing love that the fairy tales promised.

The good side, of course, is that they are all productive people who bring beauty to the world in one form or another. Once known as “the Butterfly,” Nina, a Bolshoi-trained prima ballerina who earned Stalin’s praise, has brought beauty to countless admirers through her stunning performances. Grigori, in searching for clues of his parentage, has developed a professional devotion to Viktor Elsin’s poetry; the clues lead him to believe that he is Nina’s son, and he spends years forming an inner connection to Elsin and Nina, whom he believes holds the answers to his heritage. His work as a translator and professor brings the majesty of language and literature to numerous students and scholars. Drew, having given up the quest to find true love, has poured herself into the auction house for which she researches and writes material for supplemental catalogs; there is beauty in the history of found objects she unearths for intrigued buyers.

What each character lacks, though, is moderation of passions. In running from secrets of the past or fears of their present, all three characters become so immersed in their own esoteric worlds that they close themselves off from meaningful relationships with others.

Nina’s husband may have betrayed her in an affair with her dearest friend, the dancer Vera Borodin. Kalotay leaves this point unresolved, either to allow the reader to form her own conclusion, or to suggest that it no longer matters whether he betrayed Nina or not. What does matter is that fifty years later, Nina has still not forgiven herself for what may have transpired between Viktor and Vera, or for the intricacies of her relationship with both of them.

Therefore, Nina isn’t just confined to the wheelchair, but shackled to her own mind, which obsessively replays events, desperate to solve the puzzles of the past. Yet the past is resurrected when Drew begins to investigate the connections between the amber pendant Grigori donates to the auction to other pieces of amber jewelry from Nina’s collection. Like the spider perfectly preserved in the pendant, Nina’s life is suspended in time, frozen and incapable of breaking from its self-imposed prison.

Grigori and Drew are also suspended in their worlds of intellectual solitude, preferring the company of books and historical labyrinths over engagement with loving partners. Both attempt to forge romantic relationships with close friends, but it never feels quite right, so they retreat into the nebulous comfort of scholarship.

This imbalance between the passions of work and love can only be changed with courage, and Kalotay satisfies the reader by pushing the narratives together to a point where the connections between them encourage a rupture of their patterns. When enough clues are revealed to identify Grigori’s mother, Nina finally overcomes her denial of the past to confront it head-on, by admitting to Grigori that his mother was indeed Vera. Simultaneously, Grigori and Drew push past their solace in separateness to explore their feelings for one another, and the novel ends with their relationship burgeoning. The amber necklace is symbolic in terms of the novel’s denouement, as the spider encased in amber holds an egg sack, teeming with life, hinting that there are always seeds of creation and newness around us, if we only know where to look.

It is clear at the novel’s conclusion that all three protagonists have broken their patterns and escaped the confines of their emotional prison cells. Each also discovers that love is not meant for others alone, but they, too, are deserving. Yet love takes all forms, and while sometimes love comes with opening oneself to possibility and walking life’s journey alongside another, it also arises from loving oneself enough to forgive the sins of the past. Therefore, on the other side of pain and betrayal lies wisdom and salvation.

Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting some of my favorite works of fiction that address ten difficult social, cultural, and emotional issues. I’m sure I could think of many more books if I tried–“tough topics” are kind of my thing.

10. Bullying
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an excellent story about one girl who has the chance to change her life–in seven days. Oliver manages to take a self-centered bully and make her a completely sympathetic character by the end.

And I’ve mentioned before how much I love Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn; Hahn’s story of two girls forming an unlikely friendship is timeless.

9. Autism
Two books about autistic boys, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, take very unique views of what an autistic child’s world looks like, and both are very convincing in their own ways. Not much is known about autism, but these books are a reminder that “developmental” issues and genius are relative.

8. September 11, 2001
I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in college, and it has stuck with me through the years. Oskar is an intrepid and smart narrator, and his efforts to cope with the loss of his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are heartwarming and inspiring–and a tearjerker.

7. Poverty
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls manages to recount her rough childhood while avoiding any trace of self-pity. This book is a little dark at times, but I highly recommend it.

6. Aging
Anne Tyler effortlessly captures the minor details of a person that accumulate into who he or she is in her novels, and she does not fail me in Noah’s Compass. Liam, the main character, is confronted with an inevitable slide into old age, but the way he deals with it is charming and humorous.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is, of course, a classic tale of aging. The old man faces his greatest challenge, and summons the courage to triumph over it despite his acknowledged weaknesses.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a rather unconventional entry for this category, but I found the book’s reverse-chronological order a fascinating study of memory and one man’s backward look on his life.

5. Racism
Often contested for its handling of race and slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a humorous and satirical take on pre-Civil War society along the Mississippi River.

For a more modern exploration of African-American identity, struggles with racism, and the fight for civil rights, W. Ralph Eubanks’s Ever Is a Long Time is a fascinating read.

4. Addiction
I also mentioned recently that Go Ask Alice is one of my favorite books for its raw and unrelenting take on the rebellious life of a girl in the 1960s. It was recommended to a friend of mine going through rehab, and I can see why; the narrator’s battle with addiction feels very real in this fictionalized diary.

Addiction is just one of many serious topics to which Andre Dubus III turns his artistic genius in The House of Sand and Fog. Kathy, one of the main characters, finds herself returning to the addiction from which she had recently emerged when everything in her life seems to crumble. Yet Kathy inspires a great deal of empathy and even respect from her readers–a difficult but praiseworthy feat by Dubus.

3. Abduction
As abductions of young women sweep headlines–Jaycee Dugard‘s story is one of many in the past few years–I think we all crave insight into why such tragedies happen and how victims can survive them. And Emma Donoghue certainly delivers in Room, one of my favorite books ever.

But even fifteen years ago, I was fascinated with abduction stories. Caroline B. Cooney’s smart and courageous main character in The Face on the Milk Carton made a strong impression on me as a young reader–whenever I was scared that I, too, would be swept up by strangers (hey, I was only 11!), I just remembered how cool and level-headed Janie managed to be.

2. Rape
Push by Sapphire may now be considered a classic story of rape and incest. Sapphire handles these topics very well, pushing the reader right to the edge with graphic images and then pulling him or her back with Precious’s admirable determination and optimistic outlook.

Another book about the devastating effects of rape that left a strong impression on me is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s prose meanders at times–I remember sighing in frustration as she spends an entire chapter chronicling the contents of the family’s cluttered hall–but her attention to detail pays off as she describes that family’s hurt and rage at the violence that struck once and left an indelible mark.

1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There are several books about war and PTSD that immediately come to mind when I think about masterful attempts to address difficult subjects. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are, of course, classics in this field. But more recently, War by Sebastian Junger and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli have also proved to be stunning and delicate glimpses of the lasting effects of conflict.

What about you–what books do you think have handled difficult issues well?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!