This novel about an American and an Estonian who met during a high school exchange program explores the tenuous relationships among loyalty, ignorance, and intention.
New York City mayoral candidate Nico Grand receives a life-changing phone call on election day informing him he’s got a daughter he didn't know about. From there the story reverts to 17-year-old Nicholas (as he was then known) as he's about to embark on a semester abroad to the city of Tallinn, Estonia . His exchange partner, Paavo Sokolov, with whose family he will be staying (and who will later come to stay with Nicholas’ family in New York), could not be more different from him: Nicholas is an outgoing student wrestler, while Paavo ponders riddles and often trembles. In spite of these differences, the boys get along and influence each other: quiet Paavo learns to discipline his body and calm his nerves, while Nico confronts his privileged American upbringing. Other perspectives are brought into play, most notably those of their sisters, Nora Grand and Mari Sokolov. These voices add nuanced pressure to the already taut strings of pride, ambition, guilt, and determination. Padukone’s (Where Earth Meets Water, 2014) real power resides in the quieter moments. When stubborn Leo Sokolov, Paavo’s Russian-born father, tastes a fried fresh egg and is changed by the experience, a world that is in constant flux and often under threat becomes still for just a moment. Minds change. Nora, who suffers from prosopagnosia after being hit by a car, parses faces and mannerisms, searching for any detail that might help commit a person’s face to her memory, eventually seizing “an opportunity to add to a missing dialogue” about those living with brain damage. The thoughtful tug of war between loyalty and ignorance becomes murky at best in the very end when Nico reaches out for forgiveness. However, the novel writ large tackles the politics of nationality, family, and career-building with patience and elegance.
Padukone displays mastery over quiet and simple moments.