Lena's family were Latvian Jews. Her father fled to South Africa after deserting from the tsar's army. His wife and children made the journey later and it was in South Africa that Lena and her twin brother were born. Their mother died in childbirth and this tragedy ultimately drove their father to take his three youngest children back to their village in Illuxt. He left the two oldest boys, young teens, in South Africa as he didn't have the funds to pay for so many passages back to Russia. The separation was intended to be temporary but the First World War and then the Russian Revolution exploded, making the family's split permanent. The narrative then follows Lena and her family as they give up Judaism in the hopes of making their way in the new communist Moscow. Eventually the story includes Darya, Lena's granddaughter who marries a man determined to rise in the ranks of the KGB but who is herself questioning what she sees in the party, and Steven, the grandson of one of Lena's South American brothers, now living and working in Boston as an artist and a teacher.
The novel opens with Steven crouched in a clump of trees holding a gun and watching a dacha. From that tense initial image, the narrative of these three generations moves back in time to 1898 to tell the story of this family who escaped, returned, and was trapped in the oppressive USSR to make a living as best they could. It ranges from the tsars to perestroika and glasnost. The bulk of the story is Lena's and she is by far the most interesting of the characters. Frankel does a pretty good job weaving the political happenings of this gigantic country into the lives of his characters, showing the actual effects of policies on the masses. When the novel follows Lena, it is clearly a historical novel but when Darya and Steven become more the focus, it shifts gears into an almost pure political thriller rife with danger, sex, murder, and betrayal. The split is an uneasy one and leaves the reader wondering what the book is supposed to be as it is neither one nor the other. The small details, like the difference in food available to those who are merely workers and those who are party officials, expose the flawed society quite clearly. The atmosphere of the novel feels right and the generational story is interesting over all if too long.
Although the story was generally good enough, it was a bit ponderous and I never quite felt fully immersed in it so when I came across details that were wrong, well, I couldn't stop myself from noting them. Darya's eye color when Lena meets her goes from being the same startling green as her grandfather's to being brown when Steven later describes them. Late in the novel Lena is surprised by Steven's resemblance to her father and his great-grandfather so she shows him a picture of the family. In it are her father, his wife, her older brothers and sister, and Lena and her twin. The problem is that Lena's mother died giving birth to Lena and her brother and her stepmother was never in a photo with the oldest boys who were left behind in South Africa before she and their father married. Darya and Steven are described in the novel as being distant cousins but based on the family tree at the beginning of the novel, they are actually only second cousins, not terribly distant at all as their grandparents were siblings. Small mistakes for sure, but ones that pulled this reader out of the tale. Couple these mistakes with the strange thriller-y turn the novel took in the last third to quarter of the book and it didn't work for me quite as well as I had hoped. Others have really loved it though so perhaps you should try it for yourself if the premise interests you as it did me.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and Dialogos Books for sending me a copy of this book to review.