An atmospheric, if ultimately overwrought, story of love and architecture in war-torn Finland and 1920s New York.
Esko Vaananen meets his true love, Katerina Malysheva, in 1901, when he is just 11. Her father, an embittered drunk and a fierce communist, is the Russian governor of the rural Finnish province where Esko lives. There’s only one phone in this remote village, yet the boy is entranced by the promise of modern architecture. Badly scarred and blind in one eye after a fire set by his mother before she killed herself, Esko dreams of creating buildings free from “the oppressive weight of the commitment to a useless past,” but he can’t liberate himself from his obsession with Katerina. Even though, by 1917, Esko is a rising young architect in Helsinki with no interest in politics, he becomes embroiled on the White side in Finland’s civil war to avenge Katerina’s abuse at the hands of Russia’s victorious Reds. Thinking she’s dead, Esko marries a female architect and begins to establish himself in Finland, but when he spots photographs by “Kate Malysheva” in Vanity Fair magazine, he embarks post-haste for America. There, he encounters Paul Mantilini, an Al Capone–like gangster who declares himself Esko’s blood brother after the Finn saves his life, and W.P. Kirby, an architect in the Frank Lloyd Wright school who teaches Esko that the pure, new style he strives for must be rooted in reality. “We’re trying to help people live,” Kirby says. “With harmony and a little grace. People, land, and building united.” Esko approaches this vision in a complex designed for Andrew MacCormick, a sort of Rockefeller millionaire who turns out to be Katerina’s husband. As the story reaches a melodramatic climax, even more improbable developments pile on thick and fast. Nonetheless, the author’s vivid renderings of wintry, pessimistic Finland and jazzy, anything-is-possible New York linger in the memory.
Rayner (Murder Book, 1997, etc.) captures the vaunting spirit of skyscrapers and their creators with delicacy and freshness. Too bad he fell back on hackneyed plot devices.