Review: Russian Winter

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Russian Winter’s premise (or, to be cynical, gimmick) drew me in—the use of a retired prima ballerina’s extensive jewelry collection as a way to explore her memories of being an artist in Soviet Russia. I also haven’t read many things set in Soviet Russia, making this a prime target to fill in that gap in my education. I’d actually tried to read Russian Winter during my holiday break, even renting it from my local library—but I simply ran out of time to devote to it. Luckily, the library just down the road from my college had a brand new copy just waiting for me to pick it up once I got back.

Russian Winter focuses on Nina Revskaya, once a star ballerina in Soviet Russia and now an invalid living in Boston. Unable to deal with the pain of her past, Nina decides to auction off her famous jewelry collection in order to find closure. But the questions of the well-meaning Drew Brooks, the woman overseeing the auction, are unexpectedly painful, especially compounded with the return of Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who has in his possession a necklace that completes a set Nina owns. As Grigori and Drew join forces to explore Nina’s mysterious past, Nina must face some unexpected truths.

I am going to get this out of the way right now so I can get on to the rest of the review—I am sick to death of career-minded single women being pitied for their lack of a love life and then magically “fixed” by love. (I have never seen this happen in queer romance, by the way.) Perhaps it’s because Drew initially comes across as aromantic (until meeting Grigori, she’s never experienced romantic love) or perhaps it’s because it was blindingly telegraphed from the moment Drew and Grigori appeared, but the approach to their relationship here made me see red. It felt inorganic; these two were going to fall in love because they were unattached and near each other, not because they were interested in each other. Their love also magically fixes Drew’s lack of a spine and gives Grigori a new purpose in life. And this is a shame, because Drew and Grigori are actually a good couple with good chemistry, but Kalotay insists that they’re much more than that—an approach that’s reflected in other aspects of the novel.

Kalotay’s writing is firm, with occasional and poor missteps; I will admit to laughing out loud when a mother is described as braiding her hopes and dreams into her daughter’s hair. Kalotay is a good writer, but this sort of thing makes her writing self-conscious. For instance, Grigori studies the poetry of Nina’s husband, Viktor Elsin—his work is treated as amazing and worth a lifetime of analysis, but the poems we’re given are just decent; Kalotay might have done better to never show them and only mention them. (Then again, I don’t have much of an eye for poetry.) Russian Winter works best when Kalotay isn’t overestimating her talents. The structure is a little loose, but fundamentally well-done—she alternates between Nina, Drew, or Grigori in the present and Nina in the past. (The only misstep here is a random chapter from a minor character’s viewpoint; it doesn’t quite flow.) There are occasional descriptions of Nina’s jewelry supposedly taken from the auction catalog scattered throughout the book, which, while still interesting, don’t work as well as I’d hoped. Her research concerning life in Soviet Russia feels flawless; the paranoia of saying the wrong thing, the choice between selling out and staying alive or being true to your vision, and, of course, the life of a ballerina. However, I did wish that Kalotay addressed Nina’s socialization as a Soviet citizen more; she seems to turn against it too quickly.

I really enjoyed the story of Nina’s life, as well as the unraveling of her mysterious connection to Grigori Solodin. As a young woman, Nina is a privileged ballerina who slowly (but, unfortunately, abruptly) realizes what’s wrong with her country; there’s a beautifully tense scene where Nina visits West Berlin and realizes that she’s been lied to. As an old woman, she’s bitter and guarded, angry at her highly trained body for betraying her in the end and despairing at the pain of her past. She’s an organic, complex woman, and I couldn’t get enough of Nina’s story, past or present. Drew is a perky modern woman, devoted to her job and trying to make a new life for herself after dissolving her marriage—nothing new, but well-executed. Grigori, however… to his credit, Grigori is a complex character, but he’s also darkly judgmental. He constantly mutters and looks down upon people who don’t read and students who find Russian literature difficult, and he’s mildly racist—it’s explicitly pointed out towards the end, when he notices a single black woman at the auction, but also pops up earlier when he visits the home of a Vietnamese-American colleague and her husband. (Typically, he looks down upon their lifestyle and choices of decor, considering being asked to remove his shoes rude.) This is one dour gentleman, though he does grow gentler over the course of the novel, after discovering the truth about his relationship with Nina and falling in love with Drew. But it can be hard to spend time with him—good thing his mysterious connection to Nina is compelling, or I might have given up on him.

Bottom line: While Kalotay overestimates her writing ability, Russian Winter is an interesting story centered around the organic, complex, and human Nina Revskaya, especially when it’s in its element in Soviet-era Russia. The, uh, predictability of the love story made me see red, however, and the dourness of Grigori Solodin, the male lead, might turn off some readers. Worth a shot if you’re interested.

I rented this book from the public library.

10 thoughts on “Review: Russian Winter

  1. Your comment regarding Nina’s socialisation was interesting, in that I seem to remember reading that many Soviet artists who rebelled against the regime and defected to the West found themselves deeply unhappy there. Is Nina based on anyone in particular (Natalya Makarova springs to mind, but perhaps she’d be too young)?

  2. I have this on my list but after reading several reviews, I’ve gone wishy washy about it. I loved the Russian setting and the jewelry tie but the love story seemed off to me. Still might give it a try in the future though.

  3. Hi there.

    Hmmm, it looked hopeful too. I think I’ll give it a miss. For the reason that what annoyed you would annoy me.

    As for, “a mother is described as braiding her hopes and dreams into her daughter’s hair”.
    To be fair, this is a cultural practice in many countries. An old folk magic one. Just saying.

  4. The book, to be sure, has some defects. This much is true.
    Furthermore, I agree that the line about the hopes and the braids is unfortunate.

    That said, it seems like you make exaclty the same mistake that, maliciously
    and groundlessly, you accuse Kalotay of making (namely, you overestimate your
    writing abilities). For example, you express yourself poorly, if not just incorrectly,
    when you say that the braid-hope thing makes “HER writing self-conscious” —you
    mean, perhaps, artificial, cumbersome, or something else.

    You also overestimate, you see, your criterion as a reader. You write: “Russian Winter’s premise (or, to be cynical, gimmick) drew me in…” It is unclear what it is that cynicism, in general, adds to anyhting. And then, even if it did contribute something, it remains to be seen what it is that YOUR cynicism brings to the table (I mean that attitude, which makes you laugh out loud at a misstep or two of someone exponentially more accomplished than you are). If I had the time, I would develop this point more fully.

    The poverty of your reading standards / expectations is exempliifed, pristinely, in your complaint about a racial prejudice of a CHARACTER in a work of fiction ; as if CHARACTERS, in a good novel or story, must be politically correct also. On this very point your naiveté, ignorance and shallowness are glaring.

    As a more even-handed reviewer, if you ever are interested in becoming one, perhaps
    you will be surpirsed to learn that what YOU believe about “career-oriented single women” has absolutely no bearing on the subject of a book’s quality —no bearing whatsoever. Neither does your initial paragraph, relating banalities as where you got the book and where you didn’t, etc. Finally, you oversimplify grossly, or, rather, you prove that you have no idea of what you’re talking about, when you draw a conclusion about an author’s character as a person, simply based on a work of fiction. If you deny this, I ask: what is your assertion, that Kalotay overestimates her writing, if not a claim about Kalotay herself? Ad hominem. Cheap, cheap shot. Stick to the test. Learn to read.

    • No, I do mean self-conscious; it feels like a detail thrown in to be “literary” (a term I personally loathe, as its connotations have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word) rather than organic. “Artificial” and “cumbersome” have a similar connotation, of course, but don’t convey the awkwardness that “self-conscious” does.

      I’m unsure what you’re getting at referring to my cynicism. In referring to Russian Winter‘s peculiar format—interspersing the auction listings for the jewelry with the narrative—as a gimmick in an explicitly cynical light, I’m trying to show that this format can go either way, depending on your worldview.

      I note Grigori’s mild racism because it’s never dealt with in any way. I don’t expect characters to be paragons of tolerance; I would find it a glaring misstep in any piece of historical fiction and, to be totally honest, boring. But the fact that Grigori’s mildly racist views were presented as totally normal and unquestioned is what gave me pause.

      What I believe about “career-oriented single women” will always color my readings. A book is not something that can be evaluated objectively, because the reader always brings themselves to the table. Quite simply, you cannot read a book in a vacuum. I will always read a book from my point of view—a queer, feminist, and French-American point of view.

      I like to open my reviews with the “banalities” you refer to for various reasons. It’s a way to talk about the book without spoiling it for the casual reader looking at the home page of my blog (where only those paragraphs are on display; you must click on a link to get to the entire review). It’s also a way to note down why I picked up a book; was it recommended by a friend, did the cover turn my head, etc. This blog is as much my reading journal as a book blog, and I like to have that.

      I’m unsure how saying that I think Kalotay overestimates her writing ability is the same as defaming Kalotay. I’m sure Kalotay is a lovely person, and I’m happy for her success. However, I still think that she bit off more than she can chew with Russian Winter, and it shows.

      What test are you referring to?

      I have already learned how to read.

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