In Albemarle’s (Michael, 2015, etc.) novel, the daughter of immigrants suddenly unleashes her long-stifled creativity and uncovers family secrets when she starts writing a fictional story based on her parents’ flight from the USSR.
This story’s heroine, Alexandra Baumann, is 37 and contemplating spinsterhood. She has a settled routine as a single pharmacist in Canada, where her parents emigrated from the torpid USSR when she was 9 years old. Her view of the family’s history is one full of disappointments and stoic resignation—writ large, of course, in the failure of the Communist state that promised a proletarian paradise. She starts exploring her heritage by working on a novel based on long-standing parental tales of industrial intrigue, betrayals, and laments about having traded cosmopolitan Leningrad for a dull life in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Alexandra confides her secret project to her best friend, Grace. Then Grace, an aspiring teacher and more polished writer, secretly writes her own version of the story. The surprise emergence of twin manuscripts helps bring out facts about the Baumanns’ exile and about the slippery nature of truth. Canadian author Albemarle offers a loosely plotted but perceptive domestic drama that’s primarily an exploration of the Russian immigrant experience in the Soviet era. Its emphasis on relationships and psychology is closer to the work of Anton Chekhov than to standard clichés of spies and Slavic gangsters. Along the way, its characters’ romantic complications tread (mostly nonexplicitly) across homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual borders. The story also takes detours into veterinary science—the author’s real-life profession—which comprise large sections of the somewhat metafictional, rambling narrative. However, the story as a whole offers fine insight and has a firm grasp of the first-generation expatriate mindset.
If the title From Russia, with Love wasn’t already taken, it would be apt for this bittersweet, thoughtful rumination on family ties and the Soviet motherland.