Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

by Kim on September 12, 2010 · 17 comments

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Title: Russian Winter
Author: Daphne Kalotay
Genre/Format: Literary/Historical Fiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for review.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: A former Russian prima ballerina tries to sell her jewelry collection and push away the memories the collection brings forward. 

One Sentence Review: Daphne Kalotay’s book doesn’t fit well into any genre, but is poetic and a book I wanted to immerse myself in.

Long Review: Normally I wouldn’t use a publisher summary, but as I sat down to write this review I’m having a hard time coming up with a way to describe Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay. So, here’s how the publisher describes it:

When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. … It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

I thought the book was both expansive and particular, historical and current, slow-moving but also addictive to read. Despite it being a 480-page book, I sat down and read it in just a couple of days because I was drawn into the characters and their struggles in Stalinist Russia.

My favorite thing about the book was how well the mystery and structure moves forward. Nina’s public account of her escape from Russia is known from the very beginning, but it’s obvious the impetus for it is a lot deeper than a simple political defection. Kalotay does an amazing job of slowly bringing out details, revealing clues, and building this story in a way that makes the conclusion deeply affecting.

I think this book is also interesting in the way it doesn’t really fit into a mold that I can think of. There are elements of mystery, historical fiction, political deception, and romance all rolled together in a package of poetic and lovely writing.

But it’s not a perfect book. Because Nina gets her story told in two places – the past and the present – she’s was the character I connected with most and wanted to know more about. But it also means some of the other characters don’t get as much time as I wanted them to and therefore felt a little bit flat. I’m thinking about Drew and Grigori, in particular, who don’t gets as developed as I might have wanted.

The other thing that sticks out as a negative to me is something of a pet peeve of mine – references to current politics without purpose. During the sections in the present, there were sort of random allusions to the War on Terror, the invasion in Iraq, that sort of thing. I tend to hate references like that in stories that aren’t explicitly related because it makes the story feel dated. Which might be silly, since a huge part of Russian Winter is a historical fiction novel which is obviously dated, but anyway, a note.

If you’re willing to invest some time into the book, Russian Winter is one that draws you in and keeps you involved. I think it’d be a great book to settle in with this fall or winter – blanket, tea, comfy chair, and a great love story.

I received Russian Winter from the publisher for review as part of a blog tour for the book. You can read other reviews at: Story Circle Book Reviews | Bookin’ With Bingo | She Is Too Fond of Books | Bookin’ With Bingo | Lisa’s Other Bookshelf | S. Krishna’s Books | Beth Fish Reads | Reading the Past |

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Trisha September 12, 2010 at 7:31 am

I know exactly what you mean by ‘dating a book’ through the inclusion of current events. I can’t explain it, but I know exactly what you mean.

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Trisha: It’s just a pet peeve of mine. Noting event doesn’t bother me in books that are older, but if it’s an event I know or recognize or consider recent, it just pulls me out of the book in a way I find annoying. It only happens a few times in this book, but I thought they were unnecessary additions.

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Charlie September 12, 2010 at 7:45 am

I’ve read a bit about this book but wasn’t too sure what it was about, so thanks for detailing it so well but still spoiler free! It’s nice when you hear so much about characters, but when it’s not a general thing it can be weird, other characters getting left out of it. And I think I know what you mean regarding current politics, in a way it brings a limited shelf life.

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Charlie: I think the publisher summary, in this case, does a really good job of laying out the book without spoilers. That’s the biggest reason I decided to use it. I think Drew and Grigori just get left out a little bit, but it could also be I just found their story less compelling so it didn’t stick with me as much. It’s tough to beat romance in Stalinist Russian for a storyline.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) September 12, 2010 at 2:31 pm

I’m interested in Stalinist Russia, so I’m really looking forward to this book. I haven’t seen a bad review for it yet.

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:17 pm

bermudaonion: I haven’t see a bad review either, which is cool. I think it’s quite a good book, and the details on Russia and ballet are fascinating.

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Stephanie September 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

This sounds like something I’d really enjoy. I love books that spil over into different genres. :-)

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Stephanie: I love that too. It’s fun when a book can be a lot of different things and appeal to different readers.

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Dawn - She Is Too Fond of Books September 12, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Not only politics, but any type of current event or trend can not only date a novel, but sometimes can make it less relevant in the time you’re reading it.

I didn’t notice this with RUSSIAN WINTER (my bigger pet peeve is contrived romance).

Like you, I really enjoyed RUSSIAN WINTER – the history, the intrigue, the arts … it was easy to keep turning the many pages.

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Dawn: That’s exactly it, and so much more articulate than me. It dates novels that don’t need to be dated and throws me off. But despite that, this book was a real page turner!

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Deb@Debbie's Book Bag September 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I think this book looks really interesting. I have heard a lot of buzz about it and I’m putting it on my Wish List.

Thanks for the great review!

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Kim September 13, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Deb: I hope you like the book when you get a chance to read it!

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Kailana September 18, 2010 at 9:36 am

This is the first I have heard of this book, but it looks good. I will have to see if I can get a copy at some point!

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Kim September 19, 2010 at 11:01 am

Kailana: I sometimes feel weird being on blog tours, like I’m just talking about a book that everyone has already read a bunch of reviews of, so I’m glad to know that’s not always the case. I hope you like the book when you get a chance to read it.

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