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.

Don’t just take our word for it! Buy Russian Winter for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

10 replies »

  1. “Nina’s husband may have betrayed her in an affair with her dearest friend, the dancer Vera Borodin. Kalotay leaves this point unresolved…. ”
    This makes me think you didn’t read carefully, or did and just missed the resolution. This was absolutely resolved.


  2. I read it closely; I just interpreted it as potentially open-ended based on this line which Nina thinks after she sees Serge, after she believes Viktor is the father. “Unless, perhaps, she was not certain whose child she was carrying” (419). Sure, the clues suggest strongly that Viktor is the father, and Nina believes that leaving them alone together when she went to see her mother “allowed” this to happen. However, Vera was connected with Serge and Gersh. What if Vera herself didn’t know exactly who the father was? She puts a line on the form where the name of the father should be, but leaves Viktor as “next of kin.” Maybe she is ashamed, or doesn’t want a paper trail, or doesn’t know herself. I thought that it actually added another layer to the story to consider that there was an off chance Viktor was not the father…because such a chain of events came from Nina’s strong assumption that he was, and I just don’t see how she could know 100%.


  3. Just to add, I also think there is a possibility, however remote, that there was no affair. This is just my interpretation, of course. Yes, the clues make the story “work” or make sense better. But Grigori’s paper also had a bunch of clues that when tied together,suggested something that turned out to be untrue. Most of what we learn from V. and V.’s relationship comes from Nina, who herself is potentially an unreliable narrator who has always been somewhat distrustful of people. When her trust level is as low as possible, she takes the clues and decides Viktor is the father/they had an affair. Yes, it’s probably true. But there exists for me the possibility that she may be wrong. I think the point of the story is that she made an assumption, and right or wrong, her reaction to that assumption has made her life stuck and miserable in many ways for far too long. Hence, the breaking of her pattern and admitting out loud what she believes to be true is a way out of her prison. But of course this is just my interpretation 🙂


  4. I didn’t mean for you to fill this with spoilers for potential readers, so I won’t go into details, but believe your interpretation is incorrect. I suggest you read the third book again. The author made it pretty clear that those assumptions Nina had made were incorrect.


  5. I think it is clear that you favor there being one and only one reading of a literary work and I do not; in my field and in my research, when there is a polyphonic narrative, that takes place over a large time span, where one character’s memory/recollection of events/interpretation of events or clues may be skewed by her own relationship to those events, coupled with lack of what I guess we could call unequivocal evidence (i.e. someone catching two people together/paternity tests/the like), then that suggests narrative ambiguity. Narrative ambiguity means there are gaps or contradictory nature in the text. When that occurs, it invites more than one interpretation of the text. It’s kind of like when a writer comes up with a poem and says “it means this” and yet lots of readers say “but I see this and this is why.” It’s my opinion that that’s a good thing, as it encourages debate, from which we look at different “readings” of the text. To simply say another person is “wrong” shuts out debate. I am sure my reading differs with many others, but I have not said others have read it “wrong.” I have said I see BOTH readings as possible. To me, that’s the beauty of literature. Philip Pullman once said to me in a letter that it didn’t even matter what he meant a passage to be about that I questioned him on; he said it was my job as the critic to point out my own interpretation and perhaps, show him what he may not have seen himself even accomplishing in his work. That’s the way I like to look at this text and others that have ambiguity. Thank you for raising this point, though so I could clarify my position 🙂


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