In 1917, a family caught in the midst of the Russian Revolution, is literally ripped apart when Russian revolutionary soldiers assault the train taking the exiles out of the country. Valentina Ivanova tries to barter for the lives of her husband and daughter. Lydia is saved, but her husband is beaten and dragged off with the rest of the men and children who have been forced from the train by the soldiers. The book was very loosely based on the life of the author’s mother.
At first glance, I realized that the cover would not have drawn me to the book, and although I found the first 350 pages hard to read, I soldiered on, because it was the selection for my book group. Finally, I gave up and skimmed the rest of the pages so that I could get to the end and find out the conclusion. I hoped it would get better and draw me back into the story, but for me, the book continued to descend more and more into the realm of the ridiculous. Instead of concentrating on the historic fiction of the time in the early 20th century, which was rich with information, the author chose to make it a silly love story, complete with erotic scenes, about a Russian teenage girl and a young Chinese Communist sympathizer, set in the International Settlement area of China in 1928.
Valentina and Lydia are without papers or money. They are in a hopeless situation, dependent on the favors of others or their own cunning for their survival. Lydia has grown up to be a thief and a liar, but also a survivor, at all costs. She is completely willful and unrealistic in her approach to life and the fact that she survives defies the imagination. Simply put, she gets away with the most ridiculous encounters with danger. The book requires the suspension of disbelief, as it often puts Lydia into the position of someone from the landed gentry, when she is really living in poverty, dressed in threadbare clothes and attending school on scholarship. It is odd that she knows how to behave appropriately in all situations. Her speech and attitude is often equal to that of someone raised as an aristocrat, rather than in an attic room by a mother often drunk from too much vodka. From moment to moment, confusingly, she slips from child to adult.
Her decisions are dangerous, naïve and foolish. She gives no thought to the consequences of her actions and shows little understanding or remorse for what her actions have wrought, even in the conclusion. Although she is bright and resourceful, she is thoughtless and shows little concern for how her impetuous, irrational behavior will affect others. It was hard to find any redemptive lesson or any healthy resolution to any of the issues raised in this story. Lydia experiences, first hand, the horrific brutality of the conflict between the Kuomintang and the Communists but the situations and outcomes are difficult to believe.
The story felt more like a flight of the imagination, than a novel reminiscent of the Russian past of the author’s mother and grandmother. One scene in particular was simply inappropriate and completely lacked credibility for me. The young Lydia is making love to Chang, in her own room, while her mother is honeymooning, although he is only days from being lice and maggot infested, mutilated and feverish, unconscious and barely alive. In addition, she is sixteen, but apparently is endowed with healing skills and sexual prowess and desire, under these dreadful circumstances. What message was the author intending for her readers?