Belle Epoque Paris, June 1912, newly married Nina, still wearing her blue satin wedding suit and feathered hat, sits by the window in the apartment she will share with her new husband, Abraham Podselver wondering how her life will change now that she is a wife. Abraham is a rough, gruff, Russian revolutionary, a man who disdains the social niceties and conventions, and walks with a limp, a permanent reminder of an injury suffered in prison when he was jailed for crimes against the Tsar. Everyone wonders why Nina, a refined and fashionably dressed young woman who has been flirting with socialism for years and even taken language and business classes to better herself, chose him; her friends and family confidently assert “he’s not good enough for you.”
This novel, inspired by the life of the author’s Russian grandmother, goes back in time, to examine Nina’s life and try to answer that question. We see Nina embracing the socialist cause and distributing leaflets to urge the workers of the world to unite, and sit with her and her family in hiding as they face the horrors of the pogroms that lead them to flee first to Switzerland and then to Paris. We watch them struggle to rebuild their lives, and see Nina fall in love for the first time with a handsome young anarchist. If you are looking for a good love story, this isn’t it, he treats her to fried potatoes, they get a little tipsy on beer, and go back to his room for some kissing, then he leaves her for New York, promising they will meet again, but they never do unless the author has a sequel in mind. Nina opts to stay in Paris, where life is hard but good, rather than leave her parents, who are unwilling to uproot themselves and move again, even further away, to America. Thus the stage is set for Alexander’s entrance, when he spies the fashionably dressed Nina at a socialist lecture and is instantly smitten.
Though a well-written and interesting story, one is left with the sad feeling that, in the end, Nina settled, being a married woman gives her some freedoms she could not otherwise enjoy as a single woman, a daughter living in her parents’ house, but it comes with its own set of rules and restrictions and expectations. We all make bargains and compromises in our lives and weigh our options. Alexander, for all his uncouth ways and disdain for propriety, loves Nina, he even leaves a train during a stop, hobbling a considerable distance on his bad leg through crowds to buy her a special present. Is it enough? Which is greater, what she already has, or what is missing? Is the elusive more worthwhile than the tangible? That the reader is left to ponder.