This book was on the list of top ten books for the year at As the Crow Flies, and so I added it to my to-read list. It’s the story of an aging ballerina, a modern languages professor and a woman who works in an auction house all brought together when the ballerina decides to sell her jewelry collection. There’s a mystery centered around a collection of amber jewelry, and flashbacks to the ballerina’s life in the Soviet Union dancing for the famous Bolshoi company in Moscow. Kalotay does a great job evoking what it might feel like to live under the oppressive kind of communism that existed in the Soviet Union, and what it meant to be an artist in that kind of environment. Nina, the aging ballerina, is an interesting character in the present, but especially in the past, as the kind of state of denial she’s been living in all those years gradually emerges throughout the book. I like the connection the book makes between the air of suspicion that was created in the Soviet Union and how that would affect people’s relationships with each other. I found the stories of the other two characters, Grigori and Drew, a little less interesting, but I liked the collective sleuthing they engage in. All in all, this book was a nice mix of something very easy to read, but with some real nuggets of thought-provoking stuff. And as Emily said in her review, the insider’s view Kalotay gives you into the world of the Bolshoi is quite entertaining.
My favorite quotations:
“‘I’ve realized something today,’ Zoltan said, munching. ‘It’s a funny thing, how working on this memoir, and reading through my old diaries, has crystallized some of the ideas I’ve had over the years. Or perhaps that’s not quite it. Perhaps it’s that I’m seeing my own thoughts from a distance, across a bridge of time. Their repetitions and choruses. Page after page of this odd young man’s thoughts. And that odd young man was me. I see the things I wrote about, and whom I wrote about, and you know what has become absolutely clear to me, Grigori? Though I suppose I’ve thought it, or known it, innately, all along. That there are only two things that really matter in life. Literature and love.’”
I have quite a few journals that go back to when I was in 5th grade, and I love this excerpt because it captures so well what it’s often like to read over your own journals. The jarring sense that the person writing those words was you, but at the same time, the way in which you find yourself repeating things over and over again, “their repetitions and choruses.”
“But isn’t it funny, that in some ways the price one pays for freedom of speech is…a kind of indifference.”
I think about this especially now with the tragic events in Arizona. The character here is referring to what it’s like living in the United States after having lived under a repressive regime. We are indifferent to our freedoms, but they are always fragile, and it’s good to be reminded of what it’s like not to have them.
“Well, you of all people know about that–your own Soviet Russia, an entire nation rearranged to discourage love for anything other than one’s country.”
These quotes are actually all from the same conversation that takes place between Grigori and his friend Zoltan, and it’s lovely, in that it’s natural for the characters to be having this conversation, but contains so much wisdom. Love, of course, matters because it motivates us to do all kinds of things. There’s nothing wrong with loving your country, but when it’s all your allowed to do, that’s bad. I think this quote nicely sums up a lot of what the books about.
Upcoming review: Everything Good Will Come, by Sefi Atta