The beautiful cover is what first catches your eye of Daphne Katolay’s Russian Winter. It depicts a back shot of a woman with her hair coiled in a bun dressed in a gown which is cut low in the back to show off a gorgeous amber drop necklace. When I first saw the book it immediately made me pick it up and open it to peruse the summary, and I’m so glad I did. This is an incredible and powerful debut by Daphne Katolay that fans of historical fiction will fall in love with. Now seventy nine years old and living in Boston Nina “The Butterfly” Revskaya”, once the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet who counted Stalin himself among her many admirers is retired and trapped in a wheelchair. She has decided to auction off her extensive and exquisite jewelry collection working grudgingly with Drew Brooks who is the auction house representative and is very curious about some of the pieces in the collection, especially a certain amber set. More mystery is introduced in the form of Grigori Solodin, a foreign language professor who has translated the works of Nina’s deceased poet husband and who offers an additional item for the auction: one that is tied to the amber set. Nina is forced to confront her past through a series of flashbacks which brings readers back to Soviet era Russia and all it’s horrors. Meanwhile as Grigori and Drew unravel the jewelry’s mysterious past, we learn about auction house operations as well as the history of amber. Finally, the author’s love and fascination with the history and artistry of ballet truly shines in this book as we are taken into the lives of ballerinas and the sacrifices they make. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking read which kept me captivated from beginning to end. Daphne Katolay is to be commended for the amount of detail she paid especially since there are so many different threads which tie everything together in this novel. I for one am extremely interested in seeing what she comes out with next.
Russian Winter is historical fiction at it’s best. The story alternates between Boston at the beginning of this century and Moscow in the forties and fifties. Both locations felt authentic to me. During Ms. Kalotay’s presentation here at the library she talked about the extensive research she did for the book. She expertly weaves the historical information into the story. Little details, draw you in whether it was the sharing of a tangerine or the art of ballet. Nina may not be a very likable character at the beginning of the book, but I couldn’t help but fall in love with her as a young dancer. The tension, hope and increasing distrust of even those she loved the most illustrate the climate of fear in the Soviet Union at the time. When I finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about her story.