Title: Russian Winter
Author: Daphne Kalotay
Publisher: Harper, 2010
Hardcover, 480 pages
Source: Amazon Vine
First Line: The afternoon was so cold, so relentlessly gray, few pedestrians passed the long island of trees dividing Commonwealth Avenue, and even little dogs, shunted along impatiently, wore thermal coats and offended expressions.
Nina Revskaya, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet in Stalinist Russia, is spending her remaining years in Boston. Crippled by arthritis and feeling that her body has betrayed her, Nina has become a bitter, secretive old woman. When a man shows up on her doorstep with a piece of jewelry and questions, Nina puts her entire jewelry collection on the auction block rather than part with the answers to his questions. Little does Nina know, but protecting her secrets won't be that easy. Drew Brooks, an associate at the Boston auction house, is researching the history of Nina's jewels, and Grigori Solodin, the man on her doorstep, will not take no for an answer.
When you get right down to it, there's not all that much that's new in the plot of Russian Winter. Girl dances. Girl falls in love. Girl suffers heartbreak and betrayal. Girl runs away and begins a new life. But it's what Kalotay weaves into this plot that makes this novel special.
In many ways, Kalotay's book was right up my alley. I enjoy reading about ballet, and jewelry collections and their histories can fascinate me. Both of these things were very satisfying in Russian Winter, but the best piece of all was showing life in the Russia of Stalin-- where a prima ballerina lives in a communal apartment shared with her husband, mother-in-law and thirty-three other people. Each family has one room. There is one telephone for all. There is one toilet and one washroom for all. There is one kitchen with three stoves and six tables. It is a world where secrets can kill you, so you learn to lock away pieces of your soul until the lock rusts and the key no longer works.
Once characters like Nina are seen in the setting in which they became adults, they change right before your eyes and become multi-dimensional. It doesn't matter that the basic plot has been used before. This may be Kalotay's first novel, but I hope it isn't her last.