4 STARS?… okay 4 STARS
There are books that a few pages in, you know it's going to be special. There are those that are easily identifiable as epic by the majesty of their words, those that masterfully manipulates us to care for the hero and heroine that any hurt, joy or triumph they experience in the pages, we make it personal.
And there are those that makes us go through hair pulling levels of frustration, gut-wrenching moral turmoil and the raging urge to grab the characters and smack them silly… and still, after turning the last page, you can't give it the 2-stars you've been wanting to slap it with from page one.
Guess which one this is?
The Boy on the Bridge has three protagonists: Laura, an American exchange student studying Russian languages; Alexei (Alyosha) the Russian artist who saves Laura on the bridge one day; and Leningrad in 1982 when the Cold War is at its peak and the imminent fall of communism is starting to show its symptoms. The most evident in this book being the increasingly disillusioned masses trying to escape the nightmarish reality they are waking up to by marrying their way out of the country.
The way this was delivered, you'd be hard pressed to label this as a romance. Until the very end, I was questioning the characters' motives, not only Alyosha but also Laura. The circumstances of their meeting alone was suspicious and how Alyosha drew Laura in his world and what he stands to gain from the relationship, makes him untrustworthy and his feelings for Laura dubious in my eyes.
What's interesting to me was that Laura never came across a victim in this scenario, though her naiveté and blind faith in Alyosha's profession of love was a bit of a challenge for me to swallow. Initially, I couldn't understand what it was that drew Laura to Alyosha. It's easy to automatically label their relationship as insta-love and simplify Laura as someone starry-eyed and hypnotized by the idea of falling in love in Russia, a place she has long associated with Drama, Passion and Soul.
But if you dig deep, she was getting something out of the deal too. In that she's getting something out of her relationship with Alyosha (to the point of making him sound like a rebound over someone) that she never got from being in a perpetual state of disappointment over the banalities of freedom and the frustration over the men in her life.
Laura felt uncomfortable. She hadn't said it out loud, but when she talked about an inner life she was worrying about herself: the gaping void she felt inside herself that she wanted to fill with something real, something good. Something she hadn't found at home. The larger life she had come here looking for.
So for a stretch it was a question of "who's using who" for me.
But just to be clear… I understand why she did the things that she did AND I STILL DON'T LIKE LAURA. Because she really was astoundingly immature and uncharmingly foolish for a nineteen year-old, and the fact that she survived as an exchange student in communist Russia during that particularly tense political climate, FOR FIVE MONTHS NO LESS, is beyond belief. Yes, even with a friend as awesome as Karen.
"That's how you know its true love. When he can't live without you."
Karen shook her head. "That's how you know it's obsession. Or something else."
And no Laura, you can't "see" someone's love thru his painting. *insert copious amounts of eye-rolling here*
Maybe this was the norm in the 80's and kudos to the author for keeping it real but if it is, I'm just so happy to have been nineteen in the 90s (dial-up internet, FTW!).
I think I'll remember this book as the one where I felt no sympathy for any of the characters, was frustrated with how everyone was acting, hated the relationship between the protagonists and even the supporting characters (I wanted to punch Olga on the boobs… seriously) but still couldn't give it anything less than 4 stars.
That's how good of an ambiguous mindscrew this was.
I know, I make as much sense as 80's facial hair (which doesn't).
ARC provided by Scholastic Press thru NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.