Sweeping transgenerational novel, short-story writer Kalotay’s (Calamity and Other Stories, 2005) first, of the Soviet era and its discontents.
Nina Revskaya was one of the privileged ones in the old days; as a lead ballerina in the Bolshoi, she was allowed to travel, to mix with foreigners, to taste some of the better things in life. Her lover, the poet Viktor Elsin, was “subtle,” that damning term of Doctor Zhivago, meaning suspect, though managing most of the time to slip past the censors. Her other friends in Stalinist Russia were less subtle, numbering a few figures, such as a sardonic dissident composer, who fairly screamed to disappear into the Gulag in that unforgiving time. But that is in the past, for Nina has been living in Boston for years, alone with her thoughts, practically alone except for a West Indian woman who comes to cook for her. “You must miss dancing,” that woman says, to which Nina replies, “Every day I miss it. I miss the way it felt to dance.” As the book opens, now in the rueful twilight of her life, a young art appraiser, Drew Brooks (“these American girls, going around with men’s names,” grumbles Nina), is helping Nina prepare her collection of amber and jewelry for sale, irreverently quizzing the exceedingly grumpy prima ballerina about the past. The door begins to open just a little when a piece of jewelry that completes a set arrives at her door. “It could be from anywhere,” Nina tells a TV interviewer, for her jewelry, worth a fortune, is big news. In fact, that piece, a pendant, “Baltic amber with inclusions,” is just part of a mystery out of which Nina’s long-hidden past unfolds, and a story that is not always to her advantage. Kalotay develops a neat narrative of deception and betrayal that takes in great strands of literary and political history. If the narrative seems sometimes overly researched, it is a sign of the author’s efforts to get everything right in a complex story that, in the end, boils down to the simplest of elements: love, fear, disappointment and loss.An auspicious first novel, elegantly written and without a false note.