In this “magnificent” first novel, an aging ballerina looks back on life, betrayal, and loss in the former Soviet Union.
Though my high school alma mater claims to be one of the best in the tri-county area, my educators failed me in some respects. I was led to believe that Pluto was a planet and Wikipedia a reliable source—and the difference between that and which still evades me.
And then there’s the whole Russian history thing. You know: the Soviet Union, Uncle Joe, secret police, artistic oppression, gulags. Somehow I never got any of it straight. Despite this academic negligence, I steamrolled through Daphne Kalotay’s novel, Russian Winter, without head scratching or wait, what?-ing. This novel, about an oppressive Soviet Russia, a mysterious amber pendant, and the lives of ballerinas, composers, and poets, is fantastic.
Nina Revskaya, nearing 80 years old, is a once-beloved Bolshoi ballerina who defected to Massachusetts in the 1950s. Confined to a wheelchair, living contentedly in the solitude of her tiny Boston apartment, Nina spends her days stewing over her tumultuous life, stagnant present, and past marred by an act of betrayal—an act that will elude and mystify readers for much of this literary roller coaster.
Nina’s nostalgia is rampant; it consumes her. In a spontaneous attempt to rid her fragile mind of its gnawing secrets, she donates her prized collection of jewels to an auction house, an act which garners much public interest. A local man hears of the donation and anonymously submits his own jewel to the auction—an amber pendant that perfectly matches Nina’s own amber set. His name is Grigori, and his interest in Nina and her jewels is personal and very particular.
Nina’s secrets are slowly coaxed to the surface, forcing her to acknowledge their many ramifications. These pained revelations are punctuated by flashbacks to the Soviet era which Kalotay executes beautifully, an act of time-travel that carries the novel from present-day Boston to the Soviet Union, where Nina and her artist friends once lived and loved, betrayed, and faded away.
Kalotay has created something magnificent. To follow along, to hope to connect the right questions with the right answers, a reader must commit names and places, love letters, poetry, evidence, to memory—a deed made enjoyable by the novel’s alternating perspectives. Throughout the text, foreshadowing is subtle yet brazen, and always slightly ominous; the conflict is alluring in its opacity. And is Nina protagonist—the once-beloved ballerina, victim of Stalin’s fanaticism—or antagonist, broken beyond repair, muffled by past mistakes, a secluded, colossal question mark? Just what is Nina holding onto, and what is she hiding?
One cannot help but become more invested in these questions as the novel carries on, as the pages begin to turn faster, the flashbacks coming stronger and more intense. And then, all at once, a betrayal is exposed, the secret uncovered, and Nina’s story comes to an end.
Despite its engaging suspense, pristine character development, and jolting plot twists, the novel’s sentences can feel rambling and comma-heavy. Certain passages burst with unnecessary asides and needless details, which at times can bog down this otherwise gripping conflict. Other times, some characters’ behavior is so melodramatic as to make them seem cartoonish. These hammy expressions are distracting, as if to force readers to feel for these characters when, in actuality, such empathy comes naturally to a writer like Kalotay.
The length of the novel also makes for a small but noteworthy letdown—the climax is spectacular but disproportionate to a 459-page story. It comes slowly, meticulously, and fantastically—but then it quickly goes, with a resolution that also feels too short.
Still, Russian Winter is a fantastic first novel. The drama of Soviet oppression isn’t laid on too thick, and the hidebound world of the Bolshoi ballet, though pertinent to Nina’s life, doesn’t suffocate the story. Instead, human emotions breathe human qualities into this novel: passion, pain, love, jealousy, insolence, regret, loneliness, loss.