By Daphne Kalotay
Harper. 466 pp. $26
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
'How does a girl like that, with bright smiling eyes, turn into this other person?"
So wonders the young Nina Revskaya, already on her way to stardom at the Bolshoi Ballet, already nicknamed "The Butterfly."
The person she is wondering about is Madame, her mother-in-law, a mean-spirited crone sequestered in a bedroom in the tiny Moscow apartment she shares with her son and Nina. Sustaining herself day after day with one sip of vodka after another, Madame is aware of little else besides those golden days of yesteryear, when she was a pampered aristocrat and the Bolsheviks hadn't yet arrived to ruin everything.
But those days with Madame were more than half a century ago - around the time of Stalin's 70th birthday. Nina has long since left that world behind, having defected while the Bolshoi was on a visit to East Berlin (and before the Wall was built). Now nearing 80, and living in Boston, she has decided to auction off her legendary collection of jewelry.
Nina's body is no longer the supple instrument of her glory days. She is confined to a wheelchair and - shades of Madame - sequestered in her apartment with mostly her memories for company (her only daily visitor is Cynthia, her Caribbean-born nurse). She might well wonder how she could have turned into the person she now is, so evidently different from the one she once was.
Handling the sale of her jewels is a young woman named Drew Brooks. Nina treats Drew scarcely better than Madame treated Nina. It is Drew who phones Nina to tell her that "an individual who wishes to remain anonymous has brought us a piece that appears to match your amber bracelet and earrings. . . . The owner maintains that the necklace is not only from the same source but that it belongs with your earrings and bracelet. That they're a full suite."
The anonymous donor is Grigori Solodin, chairman of the foreign language department of a nearby college, best-known as the translator of the poems of Viktor Elsin, who had been Nina's husband. Some years before, Solodin had been in touch with Nina. He thinks they may be related.
Viktor Elsin had been a popular and successful poet, meaning that his work, which is quite good, had steered clear of any themes that could be construed as subversive. Elsin could not bring himself to believe, did not want to believe, that Comrade Stalin's regime could be as wicked as some whispered it was, and as his best friend, the composer Avrom Gershstein, more than whispered. Nevertheless, both fell afoul of the dreaded NKVD.
How this came about is one of the storylines of Russian Winter, and Daphne Kalotay manages the antiphonal narrative with considerable skill, deftly segueing between what is going on in Boston in 2003 and what went on in Moscow more than 50 years earlier.
What holds it all together is that question Nina wondered about: How does one become the person one turns out to be?
In the case of the novel's principal characters, it has something to do with work. Drew, musing over the kind of work she does for the auction house and that Solodin does as a translator - painstaking work requiring "great care and . . . focused attention" - figures that "if you allowed yourself to give in to it, and gave in to the great reward of it," such work "became a sort of devotion."
But for Nina work meant something different. Even as a child she felt "the ferocity of her ambition" and had "never fully relaxed into the chattiness of girlish friendship, the giddy ease, the whoops of laughter and frank whispers that she heard around her, and even received, but simply could not reciprocate."
Work for Nina was also protection against "the world around her: little betrayals every day." What she doesn't realize until it is much too late is how the fear of betrayal can itself cripple the love one needs to keep from betraying others. It is a realization that causes her far greater pain than the illness afflicting her body - a terrible and irreparable rending of the heart.
Russian Winter, which could have been just some fluff about jewelry and dance, is in fact eerily engaging and affecting. It could well be the debut novel of the year.