Russia is known for being a country of extremes, like this church reflected in the glass wall of a bank in the southern Russian city of Kursk. Between such extremes lies a vast nation of so-called ordinary people, a quietly simmering melting pot of nationalities, ideas, and ways of life that sometimes comes to a deadly boil. Alexandra Baumann, the novel’s protagonist, shudders at the thought of what the Great October Socialist Revolution did to her birth country.
Alexandra was frightened to think that she could’ve been born at the dawn of the last century, trapped inside an abandoned dungeon of a country, possibly driven to lie and betray in order to survive, condemned to stand in endless lines for moldy bread under the leaden gray sky of an endless Russian winter, her entire life an endless winter. She feared that she wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep her dignity in such a life, that she’d be crushed, destroyed, unable to feel or act on anything but fear. Only sheer luck had stood between her and that other life, nothing but dumb blessed luck! Maybe there really was a God who’d brought her into existence at a kinder and gentler time that didn’t put her to the test.
As a girl of ten, Alexandra emigrated from Soviet Russia with her parents. She knows how damn lucky she is to live in the paradise of Canada’s Pacific Northwest. Her only problem is that she has no real problems to give her a kick in the butt. With a clean and comfortable job as a pharmacist, a clean and comfortable new home of her own, she nurses a clean and comfortable crush on her gay friend Clive instead of putting herself out there to find conventional love. At thirty-seven, Alexandra is not in the least bit worried that she’ll end up terminally single.
Her peaceful existence ends when she learns a secret her mother has grown tired of keeping. Shortly before the family emigrated from Russia some thirty years ago, Alexandra’s father, a physical engineer, came up with an invention that could’ve made him a name but that was plagiarized by his boss. Alexandra discovers in herself a fierce protectiveness of her beloved Papa, and commits herself to writing his story in fictional form–without telling him, since she has promised Mama not to open his old wound. Neither does she share her literary plans with Grace, her friend since childhood, resulting in a comedy of errors on that front. Yet throughout it all, Alexandra can’t shake the feeling that her father’s story doesn’t add up. How could a devoted patriot renounce his country without guilt or regret?
There’s no doubt in Alexandra’s mind that Papa is indeed content with his life. He holds an unambitious job as a university professor of statistics and devotes his free time to gardening and reading, his latest endeavour being an attempt to appreciate Dostoyevsky. “Nothing’s changed since my school days, I’m afraid,” he admits to Alexandra. “Not to read him is a crime, and to read him is punishment.” Papa is a humanist who has no use for suffering or repentance. But has he become so mired in safety and wellbeing that he doesn’t even wish to accomplish anything significant? Or is he simply overwhelmed by the anonymity into which he was plunged on arrival in Canada? “Our Soviet system had a way of making you feel important, consequential, if only as a suspect,” Papa explains to his daughter. “Here, nobody cares what you do as long as it’s not illegal.” In Alexandra’s eyes, Papa has already done enough just by bringing their family to Canada. Still, she wonders why he hasn’t pursued further research in his field.
Mama, by contrast, leads the leisurely existence of a Russian intellectual exiled to the backwater of a northern Ontario town. She is a woman of strong opinions and proudly nurtured ancestral values. “Are you sure this is a dress? It looks like a piece of lingerie,” Mama comments on Alexandra’s choice of evening wear for her high school reunion. She would like to see her daughter seek a “prospective” man instead of spending so much time with the likes of Clive. Mama’s distrust of Jews would be an ethnic stereotype if she wasn’t so well aware of it herself. And when she reflects on her own life, it’s not without a tinge of self-reproach. “What in heaven’s name had happened to the fearless little girl from Leningrad? How had she become an elderly woman dressed in a stiff smock of apprehensiveness?” Keep in mind that Mama is the narrator of the family secret that she has revealed to her daughter.
Alexandra’s crush, Clive, doesn’t fit in any pigeonhole, not even the gay-best-friend one. A veterinarian who’s more at home around animals than among people, he treats Alexandra as a pal in whose presence he can relax. But perhaps there’s hope for her on the romantic front. “I’m attracted to certain people, not to a gender,” Clive explains to a friend. “Having said that, most of the people I’ve been attracted to are men.” Alexandra is drawn to him not least of all because he doesn’t take himself, or humans in general, too seriously.
Clive wondered if civilization was just an exercise in bluffing your way through life, improvising, convincing yourself that it all made sense and was pleasing to someone. Humans were amateurs, nothing but hams. Every one of them was scared, every one made it up as they went along. Some did it bravely and brazenly, some just hoped to get by, to not get found out. Animals weren’t like that. They knew exactly what to do as long as people left them alone. They didn’t agonize over the meaning of life, happy to forget pain as soon as it was over, and to frolic in its absence. Ignorant, oblivious, blessedly competent creatures.
Then there’s Grace, a light-hearted person who has a good deal of faith in Alexandra–far more than Alexandra has in herself. Grace pushes her to write Papa’s story before Alexandra even knows that she wants to write it, and she pushes her to reveal her feelings to Clive. Alexandra reflects on her own inadequacies when she compares herself to her oldest friend. “Grace was more streetwise, more adept at living, more open, more brave, more of everything that made people generally good. Heck, Grace was a lot more popular because she was a whole lot more generous. Alexandra envied her terribly, wanted her talent of walking into people’s lives, her cheerful certainty that she was welcome, helpful, useful.” Any woman would be lucky to have a friend like Grace, right?
Alexandra can be a chatterbox when it comes to trivia, but she’s silent about the most important things connecting her to the people who are dearest to her. On the threshold of middle age, Alexandra faces the hardest task of her life: learning to sacrifice her own emotional privacy, and to knock on the door of another person’s soul. At stake is nothing less than love, friendship, and the truth about Alexandra’s family and the origins of their new life in Canada.