Daphne Kalotay is the author of the novel Russian Winter, and a critically acclaimed collection, Calamity and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Story Prize. She received her M.A. from Boston University's Creative Writing Program, where her stories won the Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from the Henfield Foundation, before earning her Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Read her exclusive guest review of Emily Rubin's Stalina:
Named after the man whose many victims include her own father, Stalina Folskaya embodies the ambiguity of so many Soviet citizens toward their country and its communist past; her mother named her for the leader she both "worshipped and feared" out of reverence as well as protection--necessary for a Jew in Russia. And so at the start of this quirky novel, Stalina, like so many Russian Jews in the early '90s, leaves her country for the United States, where she makes a modest yet happy career for herself at the Liberty Motel, a by-the-hour place outside of New Haven, Connecticut.
Despite this surely seedy setting and a plot that involves the Russian mafia, the story and its narrator remain obdurately jolly; even with the many sad stories in our narrator's past, we sense that no one will come to real harm. But that is part of the charm of this joyful book, which, though it at times tends toward farce, embraces the many bizarre and sorrowful truths in this world.
Setting the tragic absurdities of Stalina's life in Soviet Russia against the peculiarities of the capitalist USA allows the author's great sense of humor to shine. (For instance, stepping out of Kennedy Airport upon arrival, Stalina is disconcerted to immediately hear Russian being spoken--by the taxi and limo drivers waiting for their fares.) Stalina is admirably good-natured--self-confident, outgoing, mischievous--and her observations are spot on: "Everything is potentially a drama. I noticed that holidays here always coincide with sales in stores. In Russia we have parades."
Stalina embraces her new life in "Connecticut, USA" whole-heartedly and with optimism, finding the world a curious and amusing place. Her spunk and resourcefulness make up for a storyline that relies a bit much on coincidence, and while the book could use some editorial shaping, what it lacks in plot structure it makes up for in wackiness, including a stray cat raised by a crow, revenge via crematory ashes, and a crime boss whose dream "is to have Berlin, Connecticut become the short-stay capital of the East Coast."
There were many moments where I laughed out loud and many moments where I thought, That is so true. The author respects the often harrowing histories of her Russian characters and, most importantly, is true to human nature, to our weaknesses and superstitions, to the strengths and frailties of our friendships, and to the baggage of the past that we bring with us no matter where we go. As Stalina proudly says of the various betrayals, both horrible and petty, that motivate much of the action in this novel, "It was all very Russian." --Daphne Kalotay