A train to Moscow
By Elena Gorokhova
Lake Union, 316 pages, $20.95
In post-war provincial Russia, Sasha dreams of becoming an actress after hearing a radio broadcast of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Family secrets abound, including those recorded by his uncle Kolya, missing in action, in his 1942 diary that Sasha finds in the attic, sickening truths about life under Stalin.
At seventeen, Sasha moved to Moscow to train at the Vakhtangov Theater School where she was mentored by an octogenarian Russian theater legend for her role in “Brothers Karamazov”. The great lady warns her, “the theater will deprive you of everything”. But, for Sasha, “becoming someone else has emptied her body of fear and pain”, and she longs to play other people. Acting is “searching for what is real”.
A passionate and poignant start.
The Mayfair Bookshop
By Eliza Knight
William Morrow, 432 pages, $24.99
When Lucy St. Clair arrives at London’s Heywood Hill bookshop to organize a private library for a wealthy collector, she also hopes to solve a mystery her recently deceased mother was pursuing: the identity of a woman for whom Nancy Mitford had personalized a 1945 copy of “The Pursuit of Love”, Lucy’s favorite novel.
The narrative shifts to the 1930s and 1940s, following Mitford and his “Bright Young Things” coterie through World War II. Nancy joins her womanizing husband in Perpignan where they do meaningful work helping Spanish refugees, and she later returns alone to London where she volunteers as an air raid warden while earning a living as a bookseller.
The grief of a miscarriage and a tubal pregnancy rocks Nancy, and she realizes that “the only way to fight such grief and despair” is to write, sapping her life with great professional reward.
A book that will hook you to the illustrious Mitfords.
The circus train
By Amita Parikh
Harper Collins, 408 pages, $24.99
In 1929, in Greece, after the death of her mother from typhoid, the newborn Lena contracts poliomyelitis. Her father, renowned illusionist Theo Papadopoulos, is hired by the traveling circus Europe’s World of Wonders and Lena grows up unconventionally as World War II escalates around them. While Theo lives in a “world of hope, of imagination, of what could be”, Lena believes in science, “where the real magic is”.
When Lena discovers runaway orphan Alexander, a boy who remarkably survived Kristallnacht, his life takes an exciting turn not only because of their budding friendship, but also because he asks a pivotal question that changes the story. Lena’s life. Theo and Alexander are captured on the circus train by the SS and transferred to Theresienstadt prison where they must entertain the Nazis in charge, and Lena, left behind, must learn to rely on herself.
Many secrets lead the story to its perfect redemptive ending.
By Anne Tyler
Bond Street Books, 256 pages, $32.95
Following the Garrett family from the 1950s to our pandemic present, this novel focuses on richly imagined inner lives since the characters generally don’t communicate openly or effectively with one another.
There is an ongoing tension between personal fulfillment and the demands of family, especially for grandmother Mercy, who leaves her longtime wife Robin to live in a rented studio apartment above a neighbor’s garage, pursuing his dream of painting. Son David, however, is embracing family life, hosting his son and grandson for weeks of respite during the height of the first wave of COVID-19 when his doctor-in-law provides frontline acute care.
Tyler implies that we are never free from families. But when you’re lucky, kindness wins.