The Angels of Russia
by Patricia le Roy
From the blurb: On a study trip to Leningrad, literature student Stephanie meets Sergei, an enigmatic young dissident. Stephanie had fallen in love with a fairy tale image of Russia -- full of palaces and aristocrats; Sergei offers to show her how different the reality is. Even in the supposedly enlightened days of Gorbachev, Sergei is in constant danger because of his political beliefs. So when he asks Stephanie to agree to a marriage of convenience so that he can leave the country she is unable to refuse him.
Despite the platonic nature of their relationship, Stephanie finds herself increasingly attracted to her mysterious new husband. But when Stephanie introduces Sergei to her Aunt Marina, a Russian defected to Paris whilst accompanying her father on a political mission, he appears to know more about Marina's past than Stephanie. Could Marina be the real reason why he has come to Paris? As it becomes increasingly clear that Sergei is harbouring more than one secret, Stephanie is forced to question whether their first meeting was as accidental as it seemed...
Although the blurb focused on the mystery of Sergei as the book's selling point, what got me so hooked on this book was not about Sergei and Marina, but more of Stephanie and Sergei. Stephanie had a fiance back in Paris before she went to Leningrad, but her relationship with her fiance did not seem to be very close. She was increasingly attracted to Sergei. And Sergei, even with his mission on hand, found himself increasingly attracted to Stephanie.
Two people, knowing their love for each other and knowing of the other's love for them, but not being able to be together because of their personal reasons, that damn sad. From Stephanie's point of view, she knew that even if Sergei loves her as much as she loved him she could not openly express her love for him as she had a fiance and he knew that too. Although she did not have any love left for her fiance, because of family and peer pressure, she could not break of the engagement. As she couldnt commit herself to Sergei as much as she wanted to, she tried to control her rising emotions. From Sergei's point of view, not only Stephanie's fiance stood in his way, he had a big secret that he kept from Stephanie and he knew that this secret had to be kept from her. He also knew that the eventual outcome of his secret would harm her emotionally.
For a slight moment, the outcome of the story reminded me of the usual Andy Lau/Aaron Kwok/Ekin Cheng Hong Kong triad movies of the 90s, but in this setting of 80s Leningrad and Paris, both places of romantism, love, and regret, somehow the impact was much stronger than what Hong Kong can ever produce.
The author also made use of much literature and history weaved into the story. I mean, Stephanie was after all a Literature Masters student doing her thesis on Pushkin and the effects of the Decembrists on his Literature and Sergei was very much interested in the Decembrists which became the main topic of their long platonic conversations. But what struck me most was the author weaving in the ancient tale of Ivan and the Firebird as the opening of a chapter in the middle of her story.
The tale of Ivan and the Firebird by itself is a story that puts one into a long heavy thinking mode. Its presence in this story made me think harder on the effect it had in shaping our thoughts of Stephanie and Sergei.
Im starting to feel drawn to Russia... For more on Russia, you can look into my archives on the review I did for Russian movie The Return. Try look for this book if you feel drawn into my review. Joan Ang gives it 5-stars and 2 thumbs up!