I was interested in this book for two reasons. First, it’s sort of a historical/political novel about modern-day Poland. I’m a quarter Polish, and visited Poland for the first time two years ago, and loved it. We were fascinated by the country’s rich history and modern-day politics.
But secondly, as I started reading the book, I was really drawn by its main character, Cordelia. Cordelia is a strong young woman who is supporting most of her family through her work as a translator. She was disfigured by polio as a child and can’t walk without a crutch, and this has clearly had devastating effects on her sense of self-worth, yet she’s taken on not only the financial burdens of her family, but the emotional ones as well. Her mother suffers from severe dementia and needs round the clock care. Her father and brother are only slightly more functional.
The book starts with Cordelia driving with her father when they get stuck on a quiet road in the mud. Cordelia has to walk to the nearest farmhouse, which is a ways away, where she seeks help.
She came out of the woods at last, with relief, just in time to see the upper parabola of the sun dip downwards beyond a distant cornfield and disappear. Here the air was full of the scent of autumn, of mown hay and ripe vegetation and damp earth. From the rye stubble at her feet came the pulsing chirr of an army of crickets. Before she had crossed half the field a harvest moon, immense and perfectly round and burnished orange had risen over the far edge of the next field, and hung poised there, so close to earth that she might have crossed to it, climbed upon a hay mound, and touched it.
Zaremba answers the door and helps push their car out of the mud. Only Zaremba is actually on the run himself – he’s been framed for corruption, he says, by the Polish government.
I don’t want to tell you too much of this story, but I can tell you I was glued to the first half of the book — including an embarrassing incident on the plane ride to Los Angeles. I was miles-deep into a dramatic part of this book, my headphones on and the world shut out, when I was tapped on the shoulder for my complimentary beverage. Tears were streaming down my face. The flight attendant just said “good book?” Embarrassing, but it says something about how this book got to me. (Of course I should also admit that a lot of books make me cry like a baby, and for some reason these parts always seem to come up more on planes and trains than when I’m reading at home.)
I loved the slow build of Cordelia and Zaremba’s friendship, and his relationship with her family. It almost reminded me of how Elizabeth and Darcy get to know each other in Pride and Prejudice – not all at once, not love at first sight, but as a series of steps and missteps. My one criticism of the book is that it reads like two books, and I wondered why (as it was pretty long) it wasn’t broken up into a first book and a sequel. The first half is a perfect read – it has love, politics, action, and drama. The second half was good, but more thriller, less drama. I think it would have worked well as a sequel.
I really liked the attention to language in this book. Author Michelle Granas is a translator, as is the character of Cordelia, so much attention is paid to how people address each other and the words they use, and how languages differ.
There’s a lot of information about Polish government, including a lot of quotes, but for the non-Polish reader, more explanation would have been helpful. I can’t comment on whether Granas’ views of the government are justified. As a warning, this book is not terribly positive when it comes to U.S. post 9/11 policies either, but I have to believe that the U.S. has done some terrible things to people, especially non-U.S. citizens, in the name of preventing terrorist attacks.
All in all I was very impressed with this book and I think, even if you have no interest in Poland you would still enjoy it for the characters, story, and great writing.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an objective review.