Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: November 20 to 23 , 2013
Read count: 1, more than enough
This book came highly recommended by friends and reviewers, but I kept putting it off. Not because of the genre or anything about the book particularly. It just never looked that interesting.
The story is set in the USSR during the German invasion. Not a setting I’m familiar with, so I had to do some background research beforehand. I had read Doctor Zhivago awhile ago and loved it because it had that perfect union of engaging story and lyrical prose that I always look for in any book, regardless of genre. The Bronze Horseman seemed like it had similar themes or, at the very least, a contemporary echo of Doctor Zhivago, which in this case I wouldn’t have minded at all.
For some reason, there had always been something holding me back from this book, and I couldn’t figure out why. The star ratings were high, like unbelievably so across the board, and reviews by critics and average readers alike were glowing (they still are). Still, I never really felt like picking up this book and didn’t know why.
And then I started reading. And everything that held me back suddenly made sense. Simply put, this book is just not for me, and I must have known that on a subconscious level.
Let me interrupt this review by saying the writing by itself is not terrible. The execution of the story, characterization (especially the two main characters), and the “romance” angle, on the other hand, are almost unbearable. I say “almost” because I did finish reading, so it wasn’t completely unbearable.
I’ll start with compliments and then ease into shortcomings.
The author’s depictions of pre-siege and post-siege Leningrad (St. Petersburg) are well done and very close to actual accounts from people who lived through the siege. A great number of people died of starvation within the city during this time. Those who survived had to scour for food any way they could. The way in which the author represents this particular era, through the perspective of one individual family, is well written and shows that she had done plenty of research. Had the story focused on the siege and its aftermath, I would have found this book a lot more interesting. So in other words, if the setting and context remain the same but the story is told from a different POV, accompanied by a completely different set of characters, it would be a richer story.
I read historical fiction for a different (hindsight) perspective of historical accounts. Already knowing what happens and the how’s and why’s of it only makes the stories more interesting, to me. History strengthens fiction by adding multiple perspectives into the mix which adds more depth to an already familiar event. When this is done well, fictional accounts read somewhat like actual historical accounts but with more depth, and this is what I look for in well crafted historical fiction. I think the Paullina Simons not only captured the events of the Siege of Leningrad but also the tense atmosphere of the era, the plight of the people, and the hopelessness of a city starving to death. If only she had approached characterization and plot with the same care.
Next comes the hard part because I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me because the things that bothered me far outweighed the things that didn’t. So here goes.
* * *
* * * * spoilers below * * * *
The characterization is quite shallow and obtuse. I don’t understand Tatiana or Alexander or how they fit together at all. None of their actions make any sense in the midst of the turmoil of the siege.
Since this is a family saga during wartime, I expected…I don’t remember what I was expecting. Maybe for Tatiana to feel some urgency toward the siege on the eve of war, which should at least motivate her to think of others beside herself and her immediate “romantic issues,” and maybe also motivate her to actually procure supplies for her family before all resources in the city run out and they face the very real possibility of starvation. Instead, Tatiana’s motivations and actions make her look shallow, oblivious, and most regrettably, out of touch with everything around her.
Here’s an example:
Instead of leaving immediately to get supplies, like her parents asked her to, Tatiana takes it easy and sits back with a book. She waits until later in the day to go out in search of these supplies, but by then most are either all gone or running low. Everywhere she goes, there are lines and lines of people one every street. After a half-assed attempt to look around, she gives up and gets ice cream instead. (No, that really happens.) Tatiana decides it’s a time that calls for ice cream. She either misses her bus home before or after the ice cream, so she sits on a bench to wait for the next one. And then she locks eyes with a handsome officer from across the street, and thus it spawns a “romance” of epic eye-rolling.
All of this carelessness and callousness of characterization bothers me to no end. If an author doesn’t care enough to write interesting characters, then I have no reason to care about them. I also have no reason to continue reading a story told from the POV of a character who is so completely out of touch with reality that she gets ice cream on the eve of a siege. That’s just too much. I understand that Tatiana is supposed to be a sheltered teenager from a well-off family who has no life experience, but her self-obsessiveness goes too far at times, like her affair with Alexander, who just happens to be her beloved sister’s boyfriend.
Don’t even get me started on Alexander, the other half of this supposed “love story,” because then this review would never end. He is Tatiana’s equal exactly; they deserve each other. Unfortunately other well-meaning characters, like her family, were caught in the crossfire. I can’t decide if Alexander is oblivious or just plain willfully ignorant, although I suppose there isn’t much of a difference since he’s an ass.
I don’t read for the characters. As long as I can envision a character, I’m able to carry on with the story. I don’t expect to like, relate to, understand, or even see myself in the characterization because it isn’t that important to me. Prose and plot interest me more. With that said, for a book or story to turn me away due to characterization problems is a big deal, and for these problems to be so noticeable that I can barely read on is almost unheard of.
Although this book wasn’t a good experience, I’m still interested in the Siege of Leningrad. A majority of books written about the siege are nonfiction. So far I’ve found only two other historical fictions (that might be worth my time), and they are David Benioff’s City of Thieves and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.