"Russian Winter"

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Alternating between two time periods, Russian Winter takes us through Nina Revskaya’s years as a star of the Bolshoi Ballet in her youth and then to her current life in Boston where, as an older woman wanting to close the door on her past, she is putting up for auction her amazing collection of jewelry, most of which was lavished on her as gifts from devoted fans of the prima ballerina.

Nina grew up, trained and danced under the communist regime, where it was common for people to be taken away in the night and never heard from again. One careless comment could get you sent to prison; no one could be trusted. When she married Viktor, acclaimed poet and love of her life, and things got difficult, she looked around at all the signs and believed that she, too, had been betrayed.
Decades later she is living in Boston and auctioning off her jewels to raise money for the city’s ballet corps. Twice she has been contacted by Grigori, a professor of Russian, who has an amber necklace in his possession that seems to match a set of her earrings and bracelets. He doesn’t know his family history, but thinks there might be a connection between them. He wants to find his past but Nina, wanting to forget hers, has refused to talk to him.

When Grigori puts his necklace up for auction too, Drew, an associate at the Auction House, gets curious and begins digging into their backgrounds. What she finds is the key to Grigori’s past, a past Nina has been keeping secret for half her life and has no intention of telling now.  

There were things about this book that I enjoyed, and a few I have reservations about. The history, life under the Soviet regime, the Bolshoi setting, the dancer’s life, the auction house setting all opened up new worlds to me and I found them fascinating. The relationships between Nina and Viktor and their best friends, Vera and Gersh, were well written and the characters well developed. That story had suspense, romance, intrigue, art…a bit of everything.  Those were the parts that I couldn’t wait to get back to.

The current timeline was less interesting. Grigori was fairly well developed but I found Drew’s character flat and uninteresting. The older Nina seems to be a completely different person than the Nina of younger years. Young Nina was loving, brave and strong; old Nina is just grumpy. A major disappointment for me was that there is only the barest mention of her story in between to link the two and explain why she is the way she is. Yes, she had a difficult past, but surely there had been mediating experiences in her life since. It seemed like a cop-out to me to ignore all those years and just leave her an unhappy old woman based solely on events of 50 years prior. 

There’s a bit about a journal belonging to Drew’s grandfather that didn’t seem to hold up. I found it a bit of a stretch that her unknown grandfather also happened to be Russian. What are the odds? She had a journal of his that for some reason the family didn’t have translated into English until Grigori came into the picture. It's hard to believe that no one had ever thought to have it translated before, especially given that they lived in a university town where it would probably not have been difficult to find a translator. I question even what the purpose of the journal was in the story as it didn’t move anything forward and the mere detail it added to Drew’s life seemed too coincidental to be quite real.

My final grumble is that the ending comes too abruptly. I have no problem with open endings - most of the time I enjoy the options they give the reader - but this open ending was quite sudden and left me feeling like I had missed a chapter.

All that said, I recommend Russian Winter. The early timeline is quite interesting with characters that are too good to miss. The later timeline's characters aren't so bad, they just aren't quite as good. The book is worth reading. 


Melody said...

I've been wondering if I'd enjoy this book, and your review has helped me know what to expect - thanks for that! Your reaction sounds similar to mine regarding Orphan Train - interesting story and history but some technical issues that made it a little less enjoyable. I'll keep it in mind for when I'm in the mood for a little Russian history.

Ordinary Reader said...

Hope you enjoy it, Melody. Thanks for commenting!

Judith said...

I read this book for the thrill of being immersed in the pre-Soviet Russian society. And this it did very well! I'm wondering if she has another book in store?

Ordinary Reader said...

Judith - She had another book out in 2013 called Sight Reading. I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting. I don't know of any since then. :)

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