Set mostly in the Soviet Union, this ambitious novel takes on memory, identity, and family ties.
Frankel’s (Bloodlines, 2012) third novel is a multigenerational epic that spans three continents and almost three times as many decades. It begins with one man’s impossible decision: Isaak Shtein, a Jewish Latvian refugee in South Africa, has lost his wife. He has five children. He decides to return to Latvia for help from his family. He can afford to bring with him all but two teenage sons; he plans to return to them before long. Unfortunately, World War I begins soon after Isaak arrives in Latvia. He marries his late brother’s wife and the two flee, with their combined children, to Russia. Then they make another hard decision: they’ll hide their Jewish identity and hope for a better life. The first portion of Frankel’s behemoth is narrated by Lena, Isaak’s only surviving daughter, who grows up in Stalinist Moscow, making a life for herself amid the limitations and paranoia of that society. Lena’s granddaughter, Darya, narrates the second part of the book; by marrying a cruel, sadistic man in the upper echelons of the KGB, she has endangered herself, her children, and her extended family. That’s where Steven comes in. Steven Green, the third narrator, is a descendant of one of the sons Isaak Shtein left, decades ago, in South Africa. Now a painter living in Boston, Steven has begun writing letters to his Soviet relatives. When he goes to visit them, he falls in love with Darya and, soon after, is entangled in a plot of intrigue and violence that has him in way over his head. Frankel is an engaging storyteller, and his depictions of Soviet life are interesting. But his characters are two-dimensional and his efforts to complicate them seem trite. The dialogue, which features Russian speakers spouting American idioms, is unconvincing. Worse, most of the book’s action is simply summarized, while many of the scenes he does allow us to glimpse are mundane and sometimes repetitive. A heavy round of editing may have helped but as it stands, the book is overstuffed and the ending unlikely.
An unwieldy epic spans generations and continents while remaining, at its core, somehow improbable.