Published: July 2013
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
Laura Reid goes to Leningrad for a semester abroad as Cold War paranoia is peaking in 1982. She meets a young Russian artist named Alexei and soon, with Alexei as her guide, Laura immerses herself in the real Russia–a crazy world of wild parties, black-market books and music, and smuggled letters to dissidents. She must keep the relationship secret; associating with Americans is dangerous for Alexei, and if caught, Laura could be sent home and Alexei put under surveillance or worse. At the same time, she’s been warned that Soviets often latch onto Americans in hopes of marrying them and thus escaping to the United States. But she knows Alexei loves her. Right?
Nineteen-year-old Laura Reid has always been fascinated with Russian language and culture. Russia was the country of poetry, passion, soul, violence, and despair. She studied Russian language in high school and now in college she finally has the chance to spend a semester in Leningrad and truly immerse herself in the culture in the middle of the Cold War. Homesick after two weeks and desperate to not be paranoid about the KGB, Laura begins to wonder if this opportunity was a waste. It all changes when she meets Alexei after he prevents gypsy women from snatching her wallet. His attentions seem honest, but Laura can’t help but wonder if he’s only friendly because she’s American and wants an easy ticket out of the USSR.
My interest in this book is three-fold. First, I am my mother’s daughter, and have some strange fascination with Cold War Russia. Second, I have been to Russia, back in 2004 when I was a young teenager. I remember the very cool summer weather, glittering palaces and museums, carbonated water, strange chicken meals and beet salad, markets, and gypsy children playing accordions. In a way, I was curious to see if this Laura saw the same things I did, and viewed them the way I did: dirt poor people living among the lavish buildings, terrible food yet beautiful culture. Third, this book simply looks like a nice light read, a little love story to warm the heart.
The third reason for my interest crashed. Laura is paranoid just like the Russians at the beginning of the book, and she does view Moscow and St. Petersburg similarly. And while this is a love story, it’s one that’s also filled with doubts and does not quite leave the heart filled with warmth and joy. Alexei, nicknamed Alyosha, is fascinated by American culture and introduces Laura to his friends. Any time Laura is with him, she believes they are in love. He means every word he says, and every interaction is filled with a natural love. Like Laura, you fall in love with Alexei when you’re with him, and have your doubts when you’re away. Does he truly love her? Or does he just want to marry her and get out of the country? And no matter which one is true, how could Laura bear it if Alexei was discovered and arrested by the KGB?
The author could have used more descriptions, more ways to make the reader both trust and distrust Alexei, more ways the readers could love St. Petersburg while also fear it. Albeit through the most simple of sentences, it’s a heartbreaking story filled with fear and hope, love and doubt. Every page is filled with passion and emotion.