“My aim, anyway, is not posterity, but instead to take a sharp, bright pin and use it to bore a hole- one might say a pinprick- in the swollen history that rests on my shoulders. If I don’t let out some of that air, I think I will go mad, or at the very least confess to someone unwise.”
Zoya Andropova is an orphaned refugee from the Soviet Union, 1920s. She is placed in an ‘elite’ all girls boarding school in New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of the milk and honey spoiled American girls from bubble safe worlds. Wealthy and entitled girls untouched by the tragedy of an outcast refugee like Zoya, who give her hell, who tweak and abuse her. Zoya is much like a specimen, and doesn’t fit, could never fit into their American landscape. She studies them, one student in particular, her roommate Margaret with her beautiful easy happiness. Hungry to learn American habits, as if through intense focus and study she could ease her way into the affection and acceptance of her peers. Instead, it’s one of the many things that leave her naked, that expose her as ‘different’. She could never escape her ‘Europeanness’. She has her uses, her intensity a reason girls seek her out, and she is willing, hungry for connection, even at the cost of ‘pretending’ along with their little game, communicating with the dead, not much different than engaging in memories of her parents, the land she left, just as dead to her.
When she graduates, Zoya doesn’t have the luxury of further education, nor marriage. Instead, she finds herself working at the school in the greenhouse, discovering an intense passion for the plants. She is fast to learn the difference between the ‘help’ and the ‘students’, the girls are quick to turn their meanness on her. She learns to fear the ‘squeak of saddle shoes’, to know the ‘cruelty of rich youth’. No bother, because her mind has been captivated by the Russian writers, the voice of home she so misses. When her favorite author Leo Orlov (Lev) arrives as professor at the school, she is already infatuated, seduced by his writing. A man who writes of ‘worlds of invaded women‘, invades Zoya through every cell of her being, to her very soul. That his elegant wife Vera’s life has run parallel to her own, that they once met, somehow creates an entanglement for Lev. The two seem to become one, though Zoya’s irresistibility is the peasant world she threw off. Zoya tells the reader (her confidant) that, “I took her husband. Or at the very least I tried.” Zoya’s so hungry for touch, lonely, her heart a hostage of Lev’s attentions that she is almost sick with love. There is a darkness that lurks at the edge of their affair, threatening to swallow Zoya.
Vera is Lev’s northern star, but he resents that too. She keeps his career flourishing, she knows him to the bottom of his soul. But deep inside Lev bucks at being managed, known and she once wounded him deeply early in their relationship; an anger he has fiercely clung to. Vera, in the eyes of observers, is cold and aloof, and Zoya knows all too well she is a better match for him. How much can Zoya know about their marriage, dependent only on Lev’s side? She is almost as obsessed with Vera as she is with Lev. Two women from the same country (though different worlds, socially), both in love with the same man, but for whom does Lev’s Russian heart truly beat? Who deserves him, who ever really gets what they deserve or really understands what they are getting?
I devoured this novel, and highlighted passages with a madness that the best of books drive me to. I believe I tend to grab at novels with refugees from Europe, maybe because of the many tales (light and dark) that have lived in my ears told by my own father and grandparents. There is always a mysterious edge to the characters that I find relatable. Zoya standing on the outside of all that golden American wealth and beauty, both desiring that right of ‘happenstance’ they take for granted and wanting to reject it, births a desperate need in me to mother her. Zoya is a fast study, but still her heart is a bottomless maw, starved for everything she has been denied. She is engulfed by her infatuation, and yet could it really be any other way? The novel turns and twists, and left me stunned. Zoya isn’t always likable, neither is Vera but both are fascinating in the spaces they occupy in Lev’s world.
Lev begins as a shameless flirt, a practiced seducer (he is a writer, after all) and yet through his wife we see him weakened, childlike. In Zoya’s eyes his writing is genius, he is passionate and deep. Each character is multifaceted, trustworthy one minute, deceptive the next. They are all three driven by their passions, even if Vera’s are cool and controlled. Vera’s intelligence and beauty seems more like a spell that other’s can’t resist, male or female. We often want that which glimmers just out of reach.
The ending gave me a strange feeling, a reminder to be careful with your plans, people are not so easily managed. The writing is beautiful, and Zoya’s memories, ‘coming of age’, and slow seduction are a gorgeous creation. I have a new favorite novel! Way to heat up the summer!
Publication Date: June 5, 2018