Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Fiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2010. 496 pgs. Purchased.

Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection – unique for both its contents and its origins in Soviet Russia – in an auction to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation. Since her retirement from the Boston Ballet, Nina has largely become a recluse in her Back Bay brownstone interacting with only two chosen friends infrequently and with her nurse on a daily basis. Nina is uninterested in sharing the story of her jewelry and refuses to expand upon her largely yes-or-no answers to questions posed to her by Drew Brooks, an associate from the auction house tasked with creating a book on the jewels included in the sale.

The unsolicited arrival of an amber necklace believed to match the amber set owned by Nina offers Drew an alternative source for answers. Yet Grigori Solodin, a professor and translator of poems written by Nina’s deceased husband at a local Boston office, is just as clueless about the source of the amber necklace in his possession and hopes Drew or, better yet, Nina herself can help fill in the holes of his own personal history.

I purchased this book at the library used book sale because of four words on the back cover: Boston, Stalinist Russia, and ballet. The cover evokes a melancholy, dreamy feeling, which is part of why I was drawn to the book in the first place, but I also seem to be reading a slew of books lately featuring faceless women on the cover. The faceless theme works in this case as much of the book is spent exploring who the real Nina Revskaya is – the person defined by the past she has tried to ignore for so long – and how exactly a favored ballerina in Soviet Russia came to defect one night in Paris nearly fifty years ago.

Central to Nina’s past are her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin; her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera; and the Jewish composer, Gersh. Oddly enough, these characters felt far more developed than Nina herself, who seems to largely float along from one conflict in Soviet Russia to another. Clearly, Drew is a prop character used to open the door to Nina’s past without much development on her own. The story could have done without her intrusion in the later chapters.

The mention of Grigori’s mere existence exposes the overarching mystery the novel solves, although I did appreciate the red herrings Kalotay throws into the story to try to keep this mystery fresh. And maybe the ending felt a little abrupt given how slowly drawn out the book is, but I’m not sure there needed to be a longer march given how predictable the ending was.

For all its predictability, though, Kalotay’s descriptions of Soviet Russia, of the Back Bay in Boston, of the pain ballerinas are subjected to in order to dance, and of the fear her characters felt throughout of the novel kept me from putting this one aside in favor of something else. A third of the way through this book, I found myself pondering which brownstone exactly could be Nina’s as I walked through the Back Bay late one afternoon. The descriptions add to the slow pace of the novel, but they really helped me connect with the bleakness of the Russian winter and the bleakness of a past a person might be afraid to address in their own age.

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