By Daphne Kalotay
Arrow Books 2012
Won from Kristin at Always with a Book
Nina Revskaya is a reclusive former Russian ballerina living in Boston. When she decides to auction off her expansive jewelry collection, she does not anticipate that it will open the door to her past. Drew Brooks, her contact at the auction house, feels like there is more to the story of the jewels than Nina is revealing. When she meets Grigori Solodin, a professor with a unique connection to Nina, the two are determined to find out the truth about the Revskaya jewels and Nina’s mysterious past.
Russian Winter sucks you in and does not let you go. The narrative switches between the present day where Nina is reticent to reveal anything to Drew or Grigori and the past, as Nina starts in ballet school and works her way through the ranks to become “The Butterfly,” the star of the Bolshoi Ballet. Ms. Kolotay is superbly skilled at making the reader feel as if they actually are in the different places, watching the stories unfold. She weaves fact with narrative, so that the reader feels like they have learned about Stalinist Russia, ballet, literature, and jewels without having to crack a textbook. But this doesn’t mean her writing is dry; rather it is nuanced and beautiful.
“And though she knew that the stories had been written in another time, Drew felt she understood the confused schoolteachers and reluctantly betrothed daughters, the aging widowers and poor farmhands, whose main misfortune was simply to be human – to fall in and out of love, to grow old or die young. She had been reading one or two stories each night before bed and, when she at last closed her eyes, felt she had been there with those people and suffered their small agonies.”
One of the things I found most fascinating was the way Kalotay depicts life in Communist Russia. There are a great many things that Nina and her friends are shielded from with their privileged lives as artists. But the threat of the Stalinist government constantly hangs over the characters. Artists are placed on various levels, which indicated their compliance with the rules and how much they are favored by the government. There is a constant fear of creating or performing art that will be seen as anti-government or that your words and actions will be reported by someone you trusted. Despite this, Nina and many of the other characters are artists and their dedication to their craft is evident on every page.
You know it’s a good read when you come to the end and you are disappointed that it is over. I wanted to spend more time with Nina, Grigori, and Drew and find out more about their pasts and their futures. This novel has so many good things within its pages – wonderful characters, strong research, a mystery, and really beautiful writing. Daphne Kalotay is a very talented writer and Russian Winter is not to be missed.