A tale of love and infidelity stretches from early 1900s Europe to postwar America.
When readers first meet Aurelia, the main character in the framing device of Norvaisa’s debut novel, she’s a housewife torn between two men: Albert, her husband of 12 years (and the father of her children), and Sam, a handsome, longtime friend with whom she has an impulsive affair. When Lia confesses the liaison to her husband, he is hurt and furious, and in an attempt to distance their family from the whole subject, he accepts a promotion that involves relocating to Rochester, New York. Once there, they buy a dilapidated vineyard, and while Lia is pondering her new life, Norvaisa broadens her narrative by looking back in time, bringing the reader to 1900 Lithuania and the world of the farm worked by Lia’s parents. That essentially peaceful existence is upended in 1914 when the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian assassin catapults the whole of Europe into the conflict that would become World War I. By the fall of 1915, the German army has occupied Lithuania and begun requisitioning land, livestock, and manpower—creating a nightmare situation Lia’s clan decides to flee. The family members take their chances by making the long and complicated trip to America, where they find themselves aliens in a strange new land. It’s in this historical section—the majority of the book—that readers see Lia grow up, meet Sam, fall in love, and gradually become the woman they encounter in the novel’s opening pages. Unfortunately, the two narrative strands don’t combine especially effectively. Norvaisa’s prose, although leaning a bit too heavily on clichés, is smooth and readable throughout. But she’s far more skillful—and seems more interested—in bringing Lia’s family history alive, as opposed to the heroine’s present-day marital problems, her relationship with her children, and her involvement with the vineyard. Lia remains an appealingly frustrating character throughout, evenhandedly portrayed as the source of many of her own problems.
An illuminating fictional glimpse into the experiences of Lithuanian nationals in the turbulent 20th century.