01 April 2011
Book Review: The Bronze Horseman, by Paullina Simons
I have really mixed feelings about this book, and to sort through them I'm going to start by explaining the problems within it. I might as well just let you know what's wrong with it up front, because I'm ultimately going to recommend it. But my English major background is poking at me and making me feel guilty, so I don't think I can get away with not explaining that there are some serious problems with the story.
I've made a list in my head, so I'm going to present these things in a list:
1) The writing is pretty poor. It's sad to say that someone could write a novel of more than 800 pages and only string a few really good sentences together, but that's the case. This is the ultimate in the dreaded telling instead of showing, and the author has an obnoxious way of indicating things to the reader that should be a little more subtle. The in-your-face descriptions in some cases suggest a very weak writing style.
2) The overall character development is weak. I finally decided that the problem with this is the author's reliance on dialogue for much of the character development. She's a much better writer of exposition, and it is in the exposition and the occasional strong metaphor that she succeeds. In dialogue, though, it fell very flat much of the time. The characters seldom say things effectively enough to show us their characters. And the author tends to rely on fairly familiar follow-up descriptions to the dialogue that don't do enough to reveal the characters fully. Those common expressions that always come after a comment from the characters: he said grimly; she said coolly; they sighed. I don't have a problem with these in theory, but I do have a problem when they're all I'm getting. I made it all the way through this book, and I felt like I knew the main female character only through the way that other characters kept describing her. It was more like hearsay; the clear shaping of her character just wasn't there as well as it should have been -- especially for a character that has the potential to be exceptional.
3) The repetition of events is almost appalling in places. I wanted to dial 1-800-EDITOR-PLEASE. Honestly. In the beginning of the story, the characters take a number of walks together. It kind of feels like the same walk over and over again. I get that the author is attempting to reveal different elements about the growing relationship in their walks, but she's not a good enough writer to get away with this. When writers do this, they have to make each description count or offer something new. There wasn't enough of either, so it got really repetitive really quickly. In the middle of the story, the characters make love. Again. And again. And yet again. I checked over the Amazon reviews, and someone actually took the time to count. There are 33 love scenes in this part of the book. Let me type that again: 33. That's a whole lot of lovin', and we get all the details. How did this even make it to print? In all reality, a stronger writer could have presented the first scene and used nuanced descriptions to carry the reader through the rest of this part of the story, turning it into an opportunity to develop the characters a little more effectively. This, uh, doesn't really happen as well as it should.
So why am I recommending this? In spite of its flaws, this is the kind of story that is still interesting, still moving, still touching. It got into my head and stuck there, and I couldn't help but accept that there's something good in it regardless of the weaknesses. After 800+ pages, even weak writing can make a point. After 800+ pages, even flat characters start to feel a little multi-dimensional. (I don't have any good explanation for the repetition, however.)
In terms of summary, let me give it a shot. The story opens in Leningrad as the Soviet Union enters World War II to fight Germany. The German army is on its borders, and the Soviet government is preparing for the massacre that will follow. It's still early days, however, so the residents of Leningrad believe that they will be safe, that the Germans will be repelled quickly and that the war will be over well before winter. (The story opens in June.) In the midst of all this, Tatiana Metanova is turning 17 and is on the cusp of womanhood. She is the youngest of three, with a twin brother named Pasha who is a few minutes older and a twenty-four-year-old sister named Dasha. The family is protective of Tatiana, and she is seen as the baby of the family, naive, silly, unreliable. A dreamer. A reader who keeps her head in Tolstoy and Pushkin instead of spending the evenings meeting boys like her big sister.
Recognizing vaguely that the declaration of war is a bad sign, Tatiana's father gives her some money and sends her out to buy food. There is a line in front of every market, and after spending several hours standing in line at several grocery stores, Tatiana thinks she will have to give up and go home. She knows that this will make her family angry, however, so she hesitates. In the midst of her hesitation, she spots an ice cream vendor and decides to give herself a treat. She plops herself on a nearby bench and eats her ice cream while singing a popular song of the day. And then she looks up and realizes that she is being watched. A tall soldier is staring at her from across the street, and there is something about his stare that leaves Tatiana staring. Call it love at first sight, the two are fixated on one another: she is tiny, blonde, and extremely pretty; he is tall, dark, and (as Simons keeps telling us) beyond handsome. They meet, and she learns that he is Alexander Belov, an officer in the Red Army. And this is where everything begins -- and, in some way, ends -- for both of them. It is a moment that they cannot go back and erase, and once their paths cross their fates are joined. It's definitely a twinge of "star-crossed lovers," but it's not necessarily a bad motif. It certainly makes for a great premise to shape a romance novel.
Tatiana and Alexander could not have found a worse time to fall in love. The war has begun for the Soviet Union, and in only a matter of months these two will find themselves struggling through the Siege of Leningrad. But that's the way the cards are played for them, and they have to work through this. Besides the prospect of horrific war, things are not so good at home for Tatiana. It turns out that Alexander is actually her sister Dasha's lover. Dasha is one of the "fancy women" (a nice name for "cheap tart" apparently) who frequents the soldiers' bar. For his part, Alexander has not been unwilling to spend time with Dasha, but he is certainly not in love with her. Dasha, however, is in love with him, and Tatiana is unwilling to get in the way since she feels too loyal to Dasha. But Tatiana and Alexander cannot get away from how they feel about one another and how their feelings continue to grow, even when they try to back off and stop spending any time together. Their time together remains perfectly chaste, if you're wondering, but that only makes things more difficult in some ways.
Alexander does what he can to get the Metanov family through the siege, but things don't go well. It's not a huge spoiler to mention that everyone but Tatiana dies. (Well, of course, you know.) He gets her out of Leningrad and sends her off to relatives in a small village in the countryside. When he has the chance, six months later, in fact, he takes several weeks of leave and heads that direction without having heard a word from her. He doesn't know if she's alive; he doesn't know anything. He just knows that he needs to find out. It turns out that Tatiana is alive (again: well, of course, you know), and they try to sort through the past and see if they can embrace some kind of future. Lying to everyone has taken a toll on the relationship, and both realize that they aren't completely sure of their feelings. After all, Tatiana lied to the very end to her sister -- to avoid breaking her heart -- and Alexander's parting words to Dasha were that he never loved Tatiana (with Tatiana in hearing range). Naturally, they get through this, and the inevitable follows. See item #3 above. For what it's worth, they do get married.
Eventually, Alexander has to accept that this is an impossible situation. He's a Red Army soldier on leave, and he cannot take her back to the besieged Leningrad where she is sure to die. There's also another problem that is revealed earlier in the story and that continues to complicate things for them. Alexander isn't Russian. He was born Alexander Barrington in Massachusetts to American parents who were also devout Communists. They chose to deny their American citizenship and move to the Soviet Union when Alexander was a child. The decision -- not surprisingly -- was a spectacularly bad one. Regardless of their intentions, the Soviets never trusted them. When Alexander's mother attempted to get him back to the United States, the Soviet government arrested her for treason. Both of Alexander's parents were ultimately executed, and he was sentenced to time in a labor camp. He managed to escape, but I won't go into all the details of what happens. Suffice it to say, he's in the position of creating a new identify, lying about his past to save his life, and doing what he can to get out of the Soviet Union. And now he's married. If he leaves Tatiana behind, she will be penalized as the wife of a traitor, deserter, and potential spy. If he tries to take her, he runs the risk of creating too many complications. He attempts the former but realizes that he cannot bring himself to do it. Eventually, he decides that the goal should be to get her out and accept whatever fate is left for him in the Soviet Union.
And this is where I'll leave the summary hanging. The rest of the story is the two of them dealing with the challenges of war, the dangers of politics, and the hope of a better future. Alexander has to realize how much he needs Tatiana and her quiet strength, and Tatiana has to realize that Alexander understands the gravity of their situation and the impossibility that they have created for themselves. There's not as much of a resolution as one might like, but for those who need more there's a sequel! I read that as well, but that's a review for next week :)
So...there are problems in this story. There is weak writing and poor character development. There is too much repetition and not enough substance where there should be. And yet, in spite of all this, there is enough heart to make the story worth reading. I don't recommend it for everyone, of course. This is historical fiction and a true romance novel (and I don't necessarily mean that in a glowing way). I enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that covers a period in history not well represented in literature (like the Russian perspective during WWII). I can accept a romance novel as long as there is enough in it that keeps me interested, and that's the case here. It's sweet at times; it's agonizing at others. It's full of life at unexpected moments; it's uncomfortable where it should be. Best of all (for me, at least), it doesn't have an impossibly perfect ending. Overall, it works.
Year of publication: 2000
Number of pages: 832