Following the murder of her husband, a Jewish woman in 1905 Russia struggles to provide a future for her children amid revolution and poverty.
Besieged by pillaging soldiers and townspeople, Leah Peretz’s husband, Morris, is killed defending his family. Without other options, and with an 8-year-old and an infant at home, Leah takes a job working as a cook for the very regiment that attacked her family. There, she meets the sympathetic Capt. Vaselik, who not only provides her employment despite the objections of his soldiers but also takes a romantic interest in her as well. At home, Leah finds herself becoming enmeshed—reluctantly at first—in the rebellion taking place among her fellow Jews. Prompted by the young revolutionary Yaakov, Leah begins to attend meetings, harbor dissidents and share pamphlets objecting to Russia’s treatment of its Jewish population. Overall, it’s a wonderfully plotted novel that would work better if the author were a more thoroughgoing storyteller. Too often Magid relies on cliché where fresher descriptions would make Leah’s story come alive: Characters rue the day, eyes get misty, and tears stain letters, all of which tends to dampen the story’s momentum. Worse, though, is that in the novel’s conclusion, the complicated plot topples under its own weight. When Vaselik is reassigned to a new post after cancelling a warrant for Yaakov’s arrest, the romance that Magid has done the work of establishing simply fizzles without anything resembling a payoff. And since Leah is so often painted as the victim, her revenge against her husband’s killer at the end of the book is so far afield from how readers understand her that it reads as simply unbelievable. The relationships between the characters are complex, particularly the unlikely romance between Vaselik and Leah, but since the narrative so often stays in exposition, it struggles to memorably capture that complexity.
An intricately plotted piece of period fiction that doesn’t quite separate itself from similar efforts.