Intense? Yes. Unputdownable? Definitely.
Reading a book of this magnitude demands its pound of flesh. In one of my status updates, I described it as an Emotional Vampire – it squeezed every single emotion out of me, wringing me dry.
It was like reading The Mistress of Rome all over again… I was on the edge of my seat most of the time as it all came together. And I cried. Twice. Several times I was too scared to read on… but I kept going for one of the best reads of the decade. Yes, it was THAT good.
The basic premise.
Leningrad in 1941 just as the Soviet Union goes to war with Germany. Tatiana is an innocent and sheltered girl who meets a handsome soldier (Alexander) while out shopping for her parents. She’s sitting in the sunshine eating an ice cream, completely oblivious to the world rushing around her and Alexander sees her… can’t take his eyes off her. He follows her onto the bus and she’s so flustered she forgets to get off.
Tatiana finally looked to her right, and there he was, smiling cheerfully at her. He had perfect white teeth – unusual for a Russian. She couldn’t help but smile back. Relief must have shown in her face. Relief and apprehension and anxiety; all that, and something else too.
Grinning, the soldier said, “All right, I give up. Where are you going?”
They have an instant connection. After spending a few hours together he helps her with the shopping (taking her to the Officers store for her goods).
Tatiana watched Alexander walk beyond the iron gate across a courtyard, salute a tall officer, then stop and chat briefly to a cluster of smoking soldiers, breaking into a laugh and striding off. Nothing distinguished Alexander from the others, except that he was taller than anyone else and had darker hair and whiter teeth, broader shoulders and a wider stride. Nothing but that he was vivid and they were muted.
Hw walks her home, Tatiana all excited and happy – and then she discovers that Alexander is the boy her sister recently met and fell in love with.
“You know Dasha…?” but then broke off in the middle of the question, seeing realization and conscience and unhappiness strike his mute, comprehending face.
Tatiana looked at Dasha, then back to Alexander. She felt herself paling from the inside out. Oh no, she wanted to say. Oh no, how can this be?
Her sister, Dasha, means the world to her and claims to be so in love with Alexander. However, he doesn’t feel the same and after seeing Tatiana again (meeting her at work and walking her home, several times), he wants to break off with Dasha, but Tatiana won’t let him. She feels responsible for her sister’s happiness.
What she wanted to say to Dasha was, you’ve had plenty. You can get yourself a new one any time you want. You’re charming and bright and beautiful, and everybody likes you. But I want him for myself.
What she wanted to say was, but what if he likes me best?
The basic triangle is in place, but then it gets more complicated. Alexander has a HUGE secret that he tells Tatiana – he was born an American – and if the Russian secret police find out, he’ll be executed as a spy.
“Tatiana,” he whispered, leaning close to her ear, “we are followed, always, everywhere. The day might come when someone will jump out at you from a secret door, and then you will be presented to someone behind a desk, and he will want to know what Alexander Belov spoke to you about on your walks home.”
The only other person that knows is his one-time friend Dimitri, who is slowly and steadily blackmailing him. Dmitri decides he wants Tatiana and it becomes impossible.
“Tell me about Dimitri, Shura,” she said quietly. “What do you owe him?”
Add in the war and the siege of Leningrad (freezing weather, food shortages, family dying) and you have a complex and highly emotional story that begs to be read. It reduced me to helpless tears several times.
“It’s all right,” Alexander said, taking off his coat. “There’s some stew.”
Coughs. Averted eyes.
Alexander didn’t understand. He turned to Dasha. “I brought you soybeans. Dasha? You said you were making stew.”
“We did, Alexander,” said Dasha sheepishly. “But there was so little. We ate it.”
“You ate it and you didn’t leave her any?”
For a long time Tatiana and Alexander have to sustain their growing secret love with no more than a few words and touches, longing looks and covert walks.
He was crouching as he rummaged through his rucksack. She watched Alexander in profile, his bare muscled arms, his soldier’s body, his spiky wet black hair, a cigarette in the corner of his lips – Tatiana’s breath was taken away from her, he looked so beautiful.
You ache for them to be together and for everything to be out in the open. If you like unrequited love, you will ADORE this.
It was a warm night; her bare arms twice touched the rough material of his army shirt.
“This is the best time, Tatiana,” Alexander said. “Do you want to know why?”
“Please don’t tell me.”
“There will never be a time like this again. Never this simple, uncomplicated.”
Their romance is one of the best I’ve ever read, if not THE best. Lies and betrayal, fear of the secret police, fear of Alexander dying in the war and the constant risks they take to spend time together wrap this into an unforgettable read.
The only thing Tatiana could do was stand several hundred metres away from the archway that led to Pavlov Barracks and watch smoking, laughing soldiers filtering out.
She stood for half an hour. Then she went back to the hospital, thinking, not bombs nor my broken heart can take away from me walking barefoot with you in jasmine June through the Field of Mars.
Be warned. It does NOT have a happy ending.
Alexander and Tatiana sat a long time with their wet, cold faces pressed against each other, his arms around her, her hands cradling his head, while the wind blew the last, dead leaves off the trees, while the sky was a leaky November gray.
I would have been distraught had I not looked ahead to the blurb for the next one (it’s a trilogy). I finished reading this at 1 in the morning and seriously considered getting up and downloading the next in the series… sanity prevailed. I waited until I woke up at 5:30 and downloaded it then J
It’s a rare book that I exceed my 5-star top-rating for, but this is one of them. 6 stars.
The second picks up where the first finished, but with wrenching flashbacks to Alexander’s youth and how he ended up in Russia. The emotional rollercoaster continues…. J