I’ve been off the blog for a bit as my mom came to visit last week. Living across the country from my family, unplugging when they come into town seems the least I can do.
I’m planning a couple of posts for this weekend, but wanted to get this one up first as it seemed appropriate. My lack of presence these past couple of weeks was related to my family and this book is strongly tied to them. My family gave it to me as a gift when one of my procedures was cancelled, pushing the trial and error of everything back (I’m now nearly to the light at the end of the trial and error tunnel). The book jacket described it as a suspenseful tale involving a family who adopted a little girl from Russia. My sister is actually adopted from Russia, and as such, I was intrigued – something I could maybe relate to? Knowing how much I love suspense but so rarely finding it connected to my own reality, this seemed right up my alley.
I have odd vivid memories of adopting my sister that I talked to my mother about as I read this book. Just like the girl in the story, my sister was adopted from Siberia. It was extremely difficult for my parents to get there and pick her up, having an encounter where they actually did have wild, shitty move antics involving accidentally buying visas from the Russian mob. The agency my parents used was attached to a specific orphanage, and they were told there was a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old available at that time with one other family currently adopting. The other family would not accept an older child, so my parents did.
They sent us a tape of her, this tape that I remember so vividly. She was sitting at a table coloring, doing regular child activities, so cute. Then they had her get up to follow commands, showing she could stand up, turn around, etc. My parents took a plane into Siberia and didn’t need to take any trains or additional transport because they were in Irkutsk, the main city. They told me the orphanage smelled like cabbage, and that the children ate cabbage soup everyday. When my sister came home, she had white scars all over the backs of her legs. I recently asked her about them (she’s now 22), and she said she remembers being made to sit on glass as punishment of some sort, though she has no idea what it was she did.
My sister also refused to learn English at first. Being the youngest and as such the most adept at learning languages, I took to interpreting as much Russian as I could for her. One day she became infuriated that my parents could not pronounce the Russian word for egg correctly. “Egg,” she said. Drop the mic, walk away. She started speaking English after that and would no longer speak Russian, even to the translator at school, because she was then convinced everyone with a connection to Russia was going to take her back. She ate as much as she could at every meal as if she wasn’t sure when she would eat again, and she bought as many shoes as my parents would let her. (She still buys an insane amount of shoes, though I don’t think she remembers the origins of it. It was a sad day for me when she surpassed me in shoe size.)
And I saw some of my sister in this book, which was heart-warming and interesting for me. I saw her in the shoes that the adopted girl was initially confused to wear, in the children strapped down in the orphanage. I saw her in the disdain the child had when refusing to embrace her heritage, but wondered if the author, who wrote the disdain, understood where it came from.
The adoption process in this book is very different from what my family experienced, and at first I thought it was complete shit. But after a couple of phone calls with my mother and a little online research, I learned that laws between the adoption of my younger sister and Putin’s ban had actually changed greatly. You did in fact, at that time, have to travel twice to set the courts in motion and adopt your child.
I write about my own experiences, about the comparisons, perhaps because this is what intrigued me most about the book – and that isn’t necessarily a compliment, given the story’s potential for so many intriguing avenues. This book seems like it would have made a great short story, but as a novel it was losing me. I frequently set it down to read something else. The entirety of the book takes place on Christmas Day. The story is separated by dividers after sections, but not chapters, so it flows like one stream of consciousness from the viewpoint of the mother.
As I read, it seemed like she might be having some type of break-down, could be crazy, maybe even a Fight Club situation? At the time it was impossible to be sure – all I knew was that I might be reading a maddeningly boring section about preparing Christmas dinner and then be distracted by “Something followed them home from Russia!” with no explanation or depth to follow. Something followed them home from Russia. One of the first lines of the book, so vague, and so REPEATED CONSTANTLY throughout I thought I might actually throw my book at the wall.
There is essentially no way to explain to you from where the story goes from there, because that is the plot from start to ending – and the ending, while I won’t ruin it for you here should you be intrigued, doesn’t really answer what followed them home from Russia. Yes, you get some answers about the family and the adoption, about the mother’s denial and paranoia. But exactly what happened on Christmas Day isn’t really explained. And while I do appreciate an author who gives her readers credit to figure it out – perhaps give them the skills to figure it out first?
I don’t think this author does. Instead, once I did reach the end, I thought, what was the point of so much of that narrative? What was the point of the seemingly gripping phone calls to the husband or from the unknown number? Was this really necessary, or was it just a way of filling space until you could understand what had happened to this child? Were they there to demonstrate the mother’s own disorientation, which was already so clear?
Do I think I understand how it ended? Yes. Is there a possibility that I am dead wrong because it is so vague? Yes. Was it worth that many pages to get to the vague ending? No.
I liked some of the format; that stream of consciousness bit worked well and made for an original read. I liked the reflections the orphanage itself and the adoption process, but mostly because it sparked a connection with my own family and a new understanding of my sister’s adoption process through adult eyes (some of it was so skewed from what my middle school mind remembers). I genuinely enjoy when something I am reading prompts discoveries like that in my actual life (something that seems to be happening a lot lately, if you read my last review).
I also sincerely felt at points as if I had to finish this book – those last 50 pages were like race to the finish line to find out what happened. But in the end, it fell flat. The ending didn’t shock or awe me, and it could have been better tied to the main character’s psychological state. The question of psychological reality is what caused the gripping nature of the plot, and it isn’t quite given the attention it deserves in the end. Rather than justifying or pulling together those other 300 pages of primarily character development, it seem as though half of them could have been removed entirely.
This seems like someone who has the potential to be a good writer who hasn’t quite found her groove. I would be interested to see what she could do once she does, but will I be as interested when the story isn’t directly related to me?