Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, this first novel depicts a Russian Jewish émigré coming of age in Paris.
The story begins in 1912, just after the wedding of Nina Chaimovna Schavranski and Abraham Podselver. Nina seems more resigned than happy, and her first night with her new husband is a shock and a disappointment. All her longing is for another man—Sasha, who has gone off to America. As the book unfolds, we learn the story of how Nina came to marry a man she does not love. There are scenes of Nina’s parents in their youth, of her childhood in Russia, of a country on the verge of revolution, of pogroms and of exile. There is also Nina’s rather brief, intense romance with Sasha, the memory of which will color her later relationship with Abraham. Chapman covers a great deal of ground, and her story is filled with vivid detail. Every outfit is described down to the velvet trim; pickles and pastries are carefully rendered. Unfortunately, Chapman seldom lavishes the same attention on her characters’ inner lives, or on the tumultuous history they’re living. There are a few poignant, telling moments, but these are few and far between. In an author’s note, Chapman explains that this novel grew out of her grandmother’s unpublished autobiography, and that may go some way towards explaining her authorial reticence. Perhaps her own image of her grandmother is so rich and vital that it never occurred to her that other readers do not have access to the same memories or family lore. Or perhaps she was afraid to turn her own ancestor into a real, living character—one who might surprise her, one who might not be such a good, dutiful, self-sacrificing young woman.
Interesting material, unsatisfactory rendering.