Russian Winter
by Daphne Kalotay

Harper, 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-96216-5.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 08/30/2010

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

Daphne Kalotay's debut novel is a stunning and moving portrayal of love, loss, betrayals, and the enduring human spirit. It celebrates life and art and the bond between them. Nina Revskaya is a former Bolshoi ballerina, living out her last days in Boston. As the story progresses, it is clear that much of the time, however, her mind and her heart are back in Stalin's Russia.

Nina's decision to sell her amazing collection of jewelry, amassed through the decades, to benefit the Boston Ballet, opens up old wounds and transports Nina to her past. Kalotay superbly interweaves the storyline from past to present, Moscow to Boston, allowing the reader a window into the events that shaped the dancer's life and determined her ultimate fate. As the young jewelry auction executive Drew tries to trace the history and origin of several pieces of amber jewelry, Nina becomes alternately withdrawn and agitated. A person of mysterious origin claims to have a matching necklace that could link him to Nina, a possibility she refutes at every turn. The mystery and intrigue will keep the reader pressing on for answers. The lyrical and beautiful prose depicting a different life and time will mesmerize.

In Nina's Russia, the reader meets her husband, the famous poet; his associate, the rebellious composer; and Nina's fellow dancers. In that time and place, one's occupation, even that of the artist, was defined by the state; it determined where one lived and how well—and even how one might die. Politics and art were inextricably linked. When the system was threatened, chaos reigned and Nina's life is changed forever.

As the story moves seamlessly from Boston to Moscow, there is an almost cinematic detail in the settings portrayed that is at once informative and entertaining. One can imagine the cold practice halls of the Bolshoi, the cramped living quarters of even the best of the artistic community, the constant fear and paranoia that was present at every encounter, the inability to know who could be trusted. This serves as a grim reminder that while art in all its forms should be a free flowing expression of self and a celebration and sharing of free ideas and ideals, it has not always been so. Thankfully, even in the midst of that cruel existence, Kalotay also observes and honors the enduring qualities of love and family and friendship, which can transcend the worst of circumstances.

Russian Winter is a story of vast proportion, not so much in its size, but in its scope. Kalotay is very much at home with both her Russian and her American characters and their locales. They are very real. The details of the story ring true, and indicate a wealth of background knowledge and study. Her prose, filled with anguish and passion and humor, is a delight to read. If this book is any indication of what might be forthcoming from this author, I am already looking forward to her next offering.

Read an excerpt from this book.

A New Jersey native, award-winning author Daphne Kalotay grew up in a multi-cultural family—a Canadian mother and a Hungarian father, a fact which no doubt influenced her writing. She attended Vassar and went on to earn a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Boston University. While at BU, she won the school's Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from The Henfield Foundation. Her first book was a collection of fictional pieces, Calamity and Other Stories. Kalotay is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Skidmore College in New York. Russian Winter, her first novel, was a finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of Russian Winter.

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