Monday, December 16, 2013

Strangers Searching In the Night

Published:  July 30th, 2013
The Boy on the Bridge
By: Natalie Standiford
Scholastic Press
ISBN-13:  9780545334815

Laura Reid goes to Leningrad for a semester abroad as Cold War paranoia is peaking in 1982.  She meets a young Russian artists named Alexei and soon, with Alexei as her guide, Laura immerses herself in the real Russia -- a crazy world of wild parties, black-market books and music, and smuggled letters to dissidents.  She must keep the relationship secret; associating with Americans is dangerous for Alexei, and if caught, Laura could be sent home and Alexei be put under surveillance or worse.  At the same time, she's been warned that Soviets often latch onto Americans in hopes of marrying them and thus escaping to the United States.  But she knows Alexei loves her.  Right?

As June approaches -- when Laura must return to the United States -- Alexei asks Laura to marry him.  She's only nineteen and doesn't think she's ready to settle down.  But what if Alexei is the love of her life?  If she has a chance to change his life, to rescue him from misery, shouldn't she take it?


     Probably the biggest pitfalls of this book were its short length - a mere 256 pages - and it's very underdeveloped characters (which it probably owes in huge part to the short length of time to tell the story).  Laura Reid is just an average college student, except for the fact that she is a major in Russian studies in a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are very tense.  Laura is not really wanting to do anything other than maybe make a couple of new friends, learn to speak Russian better and go home with a little more culture.  What she gets instead is rescued by a poor, young Russian artists named Alyosha.  She is immediately drawn to him and pretty soon they're falling in love.  Against the advice of her fellow students, and her own better judgement Laura plans to marry Alyosha and move him to America when she goes home.  But is he really in love with Laura, or is she just Alyosha's ticket to a new life in America?
     The main character in this novel with the most development isn't Laura or Alyosha - it's communist Russia.  We get an insider's look into what it really meant to be in Russia as an American student in the early 1980s.  Us readers are treated to the stark class differences, the government's encroachment into personal privacy (i.e. their constant spying on their citizens), grocery stores with nothing in stock to feed the people, and an intense desire for any hint of the "rich" American culture/consumerism.  We also get some of Russia's actual history, with Standiford managing to give us all this and not have it become an obnoxiously boring textbook.  This is basically my favorite aspect of this book.
     My least favorite aspect was the "romance" between Alyosha and Laura.  They start out with what seems like an intense connection to each other.  But after Laura's conversations with her fellow students and advisors about Russians marrying U.S. citizens for a ticket to America, Alyosha's actions started to read a little differently to me.  Was he actually proposing to her because he loved Laura?  Was he just slightly too pushy with their romance and it's desired outcome?  The answer is both yes and no.  Laura spends the majority of the book sinking deeper into obsession/love with Alyosha and even going as far as to practically flunk the program she's in and start to plan a secret wedding.  Her head seemed like it was stuck in the freaking sand.  She never even considered the possibility that Alyosha was using her.  They barely know each other, yet she's ready to marry him and take him home as a college sophmore (freshman? can't recall), with no means of support.  He can barely speak the language.  Laura has the reasoning of a nine year old: it'll work out because she says it will and they want it too.  Okay, sure; cause that's totally how real life works!       The ending is pretty ambiguous and it leaves the reader to make up their own mind about Alyosha's true intentions.  Well written and it made me truly uncomfortable, but the characters felt so flat I just can't give it any more stars than 3 (just not enough meat to it for my satisfaction).    An interesting snapshot of communist Russia (verging on it's change of goverment) from an American perspective.  But not a good romance by any means at all.

VERDICT:  3/5 Stars

*I received an Advanced Reading E-book Copy from the publisher, Scholastic Press, via NetGalley.  No money or favors were exchanged for this review.  This book was published July 30th, 2013.*

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