I recently read Natalie Standiford’s new book, Boy on the Bridge. This was a book I had been watching for in any case, but just before it came out, Standiford had an article published in the New York Times‘s “Modern Love” column. The column told the story of Standiford’s own college semester in Leningrad and the Russian man she fell in love with there.
Boy on the Bridge is clearly based very closely on Standiford’s own experiences; many of the incidents she mentions in the column are fleshed out in the book, although the ending is different. Leningrad in 1982 was a grim place, both for Russians and for foreigners. In the book, Laura is 19, and studying Russian language and literature at college–fascinated by the darkness of Russia. She and a small group of other Americans are spending the spring semester in Leningrad, segregated in their own dorms (although she has a Russian roommate, who is probably there to spy on her).
She meets Alyosha, a Russian artist, and quickly falls in love with him. But this isn’t a romantic comedy, or even anything like a normal love story. Laura and Alyosha must meet in secret most of the time, and their lives and backgrounds are so different that it is sometimes hard to understand their relationship. Laura has been warned that Russians will see her and her American friends as enticing marriage prospects–as a way to get out of the Soviet Union and start a new life in the West. But she doesn’t believe that that is Alyosha’s goal.
Still, there are questions. Why does he live by himself in an apartment, when so many others are crammed into multiple-family dwellings? Why does he always seem to have American clothes, records, books? Why does he insist that she phone him from a call box far away from the school, and who is the man walking his dog who always seems to be there when Laura calls? What is the role of Laura’s roommate Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards)?
Some of these questions are Laura’s; others are really just questions that the reader might have. None of them are really resolved. And that’s all right; as we’ve discussed before, ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing in a novel.
I have been thinking, though, about my reaction to the novel, which is mainly, though not entirely, positive. I think the hesitation I have is in the distance that Standiford sets up between her main character and her reader. Knowing (from the Times essay) that this so closely mirrors what was obviously a painful and muddled time in Standiford’s own life explains some of the distance, I think. She clearly wanted to explore the events and the issues that were raised, but I don’t think she ever quite sank into her main character. One reviewer (Valerie Stivers in the New York Times) said, “I wanted to hear more of the casual, sarcastic voice Laura uses in the personal essays she writes for school. ” And I agree. Those were the times when we weren’t kept at a distance from Laura.
But perhaps this is just Standiford’s style. I have read How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, and as I was looking at Goodreads to remind myself about the plots of those books, I realized that they also were books that seemed to be set up as simple romantic comedies but instead were something darker and more troubled. I would have to re-read them to be sure, and I’m not going to do that, at least not right now.
So I’m still mulling this one over. I don’t know yet where it fits on my year’s list, but it certainly stimulated more thought than many of the books I’ve read.
Just as an aside–I don’t think 2013 is really a particularly good year in YA. At least I’m having trouble getting excited about very many books. What should I read next?