Choreographing her fairy-tale story with complex ease, Kalotay’s debut work of novel-length fiction crosses the world, from the harsh, bleak landscapes of Soviet Russia to Boston on the eve of the Iraq War.
In this exotic combination of ballet and poetry, a stunning collection of amber jewelry holds the key to one character’s illusive family history.
Nina Revskaya lives a solitary life in Back Bay, Boston, her once supple body now stiff with arthritis.
Yet even as Nina sits by the drafty window of her tiny apartment, confined to a wheelchair, she's plagued by her rheumatic hips and her memories, the images always so vivid. Relishing the texture of her privacy, Nina's only company is Cynthia, her friendly West Indian housekeeper.
As Kalotay's novel opens, auction house dealer Drew Brooke has been visiting Nina to help list her cherished jewelry collection. Drew is positive the collection will have allure since the jewelry was smuggled out of Soviet Russia “in life or death circumstances." When Grigori Solodin, a professor at the Boston Department of Foreign Languages, contacts Drew
and tells her of an old amber pendant once owned by Nina, Drew seeks to discover the piece’s true provenance. Suddenly, Drew finds herself not only holding a fragile piece of Nina but magically thrust into the inevitable chaos of Nina’s past life.
A last-minute addition, the pendant was not part of Nina’s personal collection, even though Grigori asserts that the piece indeed belonged to Nina. Grigori is unable to explain how it fell into his possession, only that it
was handed down to him. Like Nina, Grigori is a bit of a mystery. Emotionally isolated and brooding, this strange, enigmatic man has garnered the most acclaim for his translation of the works by the great Soviet Poet Viktor Elsin.
Kalotay takes great pleasure in unfolding the cautious relationship between Drew and Grigori, but the true dramatic core of Russian Winter is the author's intricate portrayal of Nina’s passionate life as a stunning Bolshoi ballerina. Nina achieved great notoriety in spite of the fact that she seemed to thrive artistically in the cruel Soviet regime. Enduring constant aches and pains, this "honored artist and most prized ballerina" held tight to her elusive magical quality, the "spark that made people want to watch her."
While the plot is somewhat convoluted (readers should perhaps take notes), Nina's life under Stalin's influence is most interesting. In this world, Kalotay's characters are either deeply damaged or victimized. Nina
acts as our eyes opened upon many of the self-evident horrors of Soviet existence, a hard and morally blind island where anyone could turn in anyone else and where certain ballerinas desired to court as many Party “friends” as possible.
Amidst the tours jetes, triple pirouettes and frustration of countless injuries, the beauty of Kalotay’s novel
lies in the minutiae: the dreamy landscapes and vivid forests, a woman’s pocketbook of photographs and a series of poems, all vital to unlocking the various characters myriad connections. The amber pendant possesses its own secret, its provenance as deceptive as the harsh realities of the brutal Soviet existence. Meanwhile, the ballet's fairy-tale world is Nina’s graceful savior,
a spiritual remedy to her yearnings, sufferings and fears.