Today, I'm reviewing Natalie Standiford's excellent The Boy on the Bridge. It's a beautifully written YA about life in Soviet Russia.
YA Historical Saturday is a rotating segment with Sci-Fi Saturday and Supernatural Saturday.
Hardcover, 256 pages
Expected publication: July 30th 2013 by Scholastic Press
Format read: E-ARC via NetGalley
The book was Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, and the author was Natalie Standiford. I absolutely loved the unfolding confessions from the three Sullivan sisters, all trying to figure out if they were the cause of the reversal of their family fortunes.
So when I heard that she was doing a YA historical book (!) about an American studying abroad (!!) during the Cold War (!!!), I knew this was something I had to read.
It's the height of the Cold War, and paranoia and suspicion are everywhere that Laura looks. Though studying in the USSR is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the nineteen-year-old, the bleak environment of her university and her surroundings, just doesn't match up to her expectations.
That is, until she meets Alyosha. A talented artist with big aspirations, Alyosha shows Laura the St. Petersburg that she's always wanted to see. And the two of them slowly begin to fall in love.
However, as Laura struggles to keep her relationship with Alyosha secret, for fear of attracting the attention of the wrong individuals, she begins to struggle to balance her school life and personal beliefs, with the life she wants with Alyosha.
As the deadline for Laura's return to the United States quickly approaches, Alyosha asks Laura to marry him. Though Laura doesn't thinks she's ready marriage, she also doesn't want to leave him behind. Can she make the leap?
Things that worked:
Laura was the perfect character to experience Cold War-era St. Petersburg through.
She was smart, insightful and goal-orientated, but she also wasn't afraid to admit when things just really, really sucked. I loved how she was thoughtful enough to do things like buy Alyosha things at a store he normally couldn't gain access too, even though she readily admitted that she didn't have a lot of money. I also loved how she truly started appreciating her environment, and started seeing the beauty in the bleak.
Standiford has written Laura with the type of traits that I think anyone would want, or the type of person that anyone would want to be friends with, if they were stuck in a strange country for a long period of time.
Alyosha was more of an enigma, which I suppose is fitting considering his role in Laura's life. However, I did love how upfront he was about certain observations - e.g. his comment about Dan's ballerina friend - and how he was just so straightforward for his feelings and affections for Laura.
* The plotting
Standiford had the difficult task of making an intense relationship unfold in a very short, limited timeframe - seriously, if you've ever studied abroad, you'll understand that feeling of time flying by quickly -and she does so masterfully.
From Laura and Alyosha's first meeting on the bridge, I never once doubted how organic and believable their relationship was. They started slowly, made progress through repeated meetings, and eventually began a believable, beautiful relationship.
Along the way, Standiford included obstacles that were believable and surmountable, and wrote them in a way emphasized the foreign culture that Laura was dealing with.
E.g. In one instance, Laura encounters another woman in Alyosha's flat which could have been easily misinterpreted. After all, similar situations have unfolded in books and films across the ages.
However, Standiford writes the situation in a way which really emphasizes the fact that despite her studies and relationship with Alyosha, Laura's still dealing with fundamental cultural quirks that she may not necessarily understand.
* the writing
Standiford's writing was beautiful. Her descriptions were rich and vibrant, and I could easily visualize everything she described.
(Honestly, I wanted to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow after reading this book - and it's not somewhere I'd ever thought I'd want to travel to.)
Her writing strengths were also beautifully reflected in her secondary characters. We meet a lot of the people in Laura and Alyosha's lives, and they're all sketched out beautifully and in a well-rounded way. Even characters like Ninel, who only make minor appearances, are written in a way in which we discern their life story, simply by how they look or what they say.
* The ending
The ending was beautifully abrupt.
There's no perfect resolution, but it's absolutely fitting for the time and the type of relationship that Laura and Alyosha had. Standiford masterfully draws out the final few pages, to the point where you can feel every emotion, every thought and every regret that the two of them must have been having.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
I think the only thing that didn't work for me about The Boy on the Bridge, was the cover.
While the cover is undoubtedly beautiful, I also think that it doesn't necessarily encompass the emotional depth or range of Standiford's story. It seems to emphasize only the romance factor, while downplaying a lot of the socio-economic lessons that Standiford smartly sprinkled throughout the course of the text.
In fact, the first time I saw the cover, it actually strongly reminded me of the covers of romance books from the 1980s. (Which, considering the timeline of TBotB does makes sense!) I initially wasn't sure I wanted to read something that seemed so romance-driven, but a careful reading of the synopsis and my previous familiarity with Standiford's work, quickly changed my mind.
My only concern now is that if someone walked past this book in the bookstore andwasn't familiar with Standiford, they might not necessarily give this book that same chance. And that would definitely be a shame!
* The insta-love factor
I've seen several reviews express disappointment over the insta-love that seemed to drive Laura and Alyosha's relationship.
While I agree that the relationship moved rather quickly, I would also argue that from a historical perspective, and even a general travel perspective, the type of attachment that the two of them developed wasn't all that unusual.
Historically, I think that the type of environment that Laura and Alyosha found themselves in, basically meant that emotions were stronger and more urgent that they normally would be in a regular environment. They were living lives in a country where they didn't know if one wrong move would send them to jail. So it only makes sense that they would latch onto that something or someone that would make them happy, and very quickly at that.
And of course, there's the historical component for why people like Aloysha would want the relationship to succeed, and Standiford covers that beautifully.
From a general travel perspective: it's a bunch of attractive young people in a foreign country. Flings and relationships are bound to happen. Just ask college student who's studied abroad.
This is a love story first and foremost, but this is also a book which wonderfully details the small hopes, tragedies and obstacles of what it is to live in a cold and frequently hostile environment.
I would recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a good YA historical book, but also for people who want a better understanding of a very difficult point in US/Russian history. This book will help readers to better understand how the real-life counterparts that Laura and Alyosha represent, must have struggled, and triumphed to succeed in their day-to-day lives.
Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of The Boy on the Bridge from Scholastic via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you so much!