“Baba Flora didn’t regret her life. And neither do I. She had a front seat on history.”
I thought my jaw might drop. “Is that what she called it?”
“She always said, ‘The only way to learn who you are is to leave home’.”
Rich is characters and history, the reader watches the strange twists and turns of fate for one family. As Florence Fein falls in with left leaning student groups at her city college in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, she is driven to leave her free American middle class life on a cloud of idealism. The Russia she finds changes through the years, and the girlish ideals she had dies along with her future. When she finds love and has a child with a fellow American expat, too she finds herself in trouble and soon, sent to a work camp. The novel follows Florence from her girlish beginnings and her reasons for going to Russia, and everything that leads up to her troubles. Too the reader is dropped into her son Julian’s time in the orphanage, her emigration to America and his return as a successful businessman as he tries to research his mother’s past. Julian’s son Lenny has a different vision of Russia and his opportunistic there. Just as idealistic as his Baba Flora once was, Julian and his son clash- as each of their understandings of Russia differ drastically.
Early on in the orphanage Julian thinks he can save his mother through a ‘redeeming future.’ “I’d never bought the line my parents were enemies, a word I could associate only with German fascists. Yet I also knew they were not true Russians.” It was easier to imagine they had made mistakes, ones Russian born people never would. He wants nothing more than to be the best Russian he can, to salvage any dignity lost through his parents carelessness. Julian goes on to work hard, to join in, but will it all be for not? Just how great can he be, if there is a cap on greatness due to his American, Jewish heritage? Just what is a real “Muscovite”? These are things he will discover as he grows up. Is his mother an enemy of Russia or not? It is the not knowing that so confuses Julian and sets the stage for his future.
What of Florence? Are all her friends, husband just co-conspirators or is it a narrative that is convenient to fictionalize in order to imprison the innocent? Were the very things Flora commit her heart to, abandon her own American comfort and family for her own undoing? “Suppressions and omissions were an unshakable habit of hers, as they are of so many who carry on unreciprocated romances with doomed causes.” The story of each character is tragic and doomed from the start. I spent a lot of time cringing at Florence’s naivete about her place in Russia. Florence starts with her head in the clouds and ends it broken and without hope. What a heck of a way to wake up to yourself, and the country you are in.
How easily the life of her son, and future grandson are shaped by choices she made before either were thought of. Florence ends up costing her loved ones so very much, the most for her son Julian. People turn on each other, eyes and ears are everywhere and before long one has to wonder if they are guilty, and of what? Culture shock, what exactly freedom means from one place to another, how countries are different, how they are the same, at 560 pages the reader is taken through a changing Russia. It’s easy to see how a young impressionable person can be caught up in a fight that isn’t quite their own, how a hunger to be a part of changing history can hook someone. When betraying others is the only way to save yourself, and your family- how far do you go? Do you dig your own grave in throwing dirt on others? This novel is staggering, I felt the push and pull of each character’s emotional state and it isn’t an easy novel. Half the time, just like the characters, you don’t know who to trust or where you stand. With The Patriots, the reader is able to sneak into Russia and live under the radar during changing times without capture, unlike our poor family within. I won’t ruin this with any spoilers. Yes, read it!
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Random House Publishing Group- Random House
Spiegal and Grau