A Unique Historical Novel - The Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford
As I mentioned when I wrote about Jennifer Donnelly’s wonderful A Northern Light, I love the idea of historical novels, but I often struggle to enjoy them. I’m incredibly picky about historical fiction, so I was thrilled to discover Natalie Standiford’s The Boy on the Bridge.
Set in 1982 Leningrad (St. Petersburg to you kids) in what was then known as the USSR (Russia to you kids), The Boy on the Bridge chronicles main character Laura’s semester abroad (she’s a Russian major at Brown). She lives in a horrible barracks-style dormitory known as Dorm 6, and takes classes in Russian language and literature.
They’re constantly monitored, eat horrible food and live a fairly sparse life, though it’s far beyond the standards of most Russians. When they first arrived in Leningrad, Laura and the rest of the students are warned to avoid relationships with the locals, as they are seen as targets for young people wanting to get out of the USSR. Marriage to a foreigner is the easiest, most accessible, way out of the Soviet Union, so college students like Laura, looking for adventure are good prospects for a ticket out.
Through what seems like a chance meeting on a bridge near her dorm, Laura meets Alyosha (he’s named Alexei, but doesn’t use that name), a 22-year old artist employed in a “make-work” job painting scenes from movies on posters at theaters. He suggests that the two spend time together so that they can practice each other’s languages, and Laura and Alyosha quickly become embroiled in a whirlwind romance—a romance with an end-date, since Laura is only in Leningrad for the semester. As Laura becomes immersed in Alyosha’s world, she begins to wonder if there’s a way they can have a future, if she can give him a better life in America.
The Boy on the Bridge is beautifully historical and rooted in the time.
It never lazily falls back on music references to create faux authenticity and nostalgia. Rather, Standiford weaves political, social and cultural realities into the story, and there’s very little exposition. I felt like I was experiencing 1980s Leningrad right along with Laura, as she discovers that the real Leningrad is quite different from the romanticized (almost fetishized) Russia of her imagination.
I was surprised by how intimate the narration felt, as it’s written in third person, which is usually distancing by its very nature.
The headstone was a huge slab of red marble set on a larger slab of gray marble, and in front of it was a bust of the poet, handsome and rakish, his thick dark hair curling over his forehead. She read the dates: 1893–1930. He had killed himself over lost love at age thirty-six. There it was, that mix of love and death, violence and poetry. Now that she’d found it, she wasn’t sure she wanted it anymore. Her heart pounded. In two months, her semester abroad would end. She would have to leave Leningrad, possibly forever. That meant leaving Alyosha, too — possibly forever. Probably forever. She wanted love without the death, poetry without the violence.
Instead, in this iteration of third-person, I found myself as simultaneously swept up and confused by Aloysha's motivations as Laura was. Does he really love Laura? Or is she simply a means to an end? Can she simply walk away from him when the semester is finished? Or will their lives be forever intertwined? These are all questions Laura contemplates and I my own thoughts on this relationship shifted back and forth through out the novel, which I believe was the author’s intention.
No, it wasn’t spring that had transformed the city, but something else — her own eyes. Where once they’d seen decay, waste, and grim gray skies, they now saw beauty, history, and a moody atmosphere, a sense of mystery. The palace walls of eggshell blue and butter yellow, the gleaming golden domes of old churches, the mesmerizing classical pattern on the gate of the Summer Garden, the statues of horses and men that seemed to come alive in the dusk, the fog drifting off a winding canal, a melancholy glance between two girls her age . . . To her this was no longer Leningrad. It was St. Petersburg.
Through Laura’s relationship with Alyosha, Standiford touches on a number of themes, but with a light hand, as is my preference. I’ve mentioned before that I’m particularly interested in travel narratives and the transformative nature of travel, and The Boy on the Bridge explores this in an interesting manner, since Laura’s experience in Leningrad is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. And the notion of imagined versus real place (in Laura’s case, Russia; in Alyosha’s America) is also subtly exposed. The headiness of intense young love is also addressed, with neither Laura nor Alyosha really knowing the other, but their relationship still being meaningful and life-altering. (I’ve seen some reviewers refer to it as “insta-love,” which I vehemently disagree with—their relationship is the sort that happens in college and in study abroad-type situations all the time.)
There’s a lot of weight in this slim novel.
Some lingering plot points left me wanting more, however. I wish there’d been more interaction with the secondary characters, as they were all quite intriguing, particularly Laura’s roommates Ninel and Karen, a Russian and an African American student, respectively.
While a key point of the story is the all-consuming (and not necessarily in a good way) new relationship Laura has with Alyosha, I would have loved for a couple of more scenes with these two women, each who has her own reasons for being in the program, which would have provided a bit more historical context. It also would have been worthwhile to know a bit more about another American student, who basically gives up school and trades on the black market, and also develops a relationship with a local.
Karen put her arm around Laura’s shoulder and began to lead her back toward the museum. “Be careful, Laura. This guy is making a full-on assault on you.”
“Assault?” Laura couldn’t understand how Karen could see it that way. “He’s not attacking me. This is love.”
“Laura, this isn’t love. Love lets you go on a trip without following you. Love can live without you for a week, knowing you’ll come back.”
“No, it can’t.” The afternoon shadows grew long and cold. In spite of the chill, a heat rose up inside her and flooded her face. “That’s how you know it’s true love. When he can’t live without you.”
Karen shook her head. “That’s how you know it’s obsession. Or something else.”
Additionally, there are multiple references to Alyosha’s ex-girlfriend, Tanya, who may have become a prostitute, and these mentions left me expecting that she’d eventually play a role in the story, but she never appeared. Alyosha lives in an apartment all by himself, while it’s common for young people to share, because of the scarcity of housing. It seemed that there were elements in Alyosha’s story that wanted to be revealed, but never were. I don’t need everything tied up neatly, but at 245 pages, there was space in the story to provide a bit more in the way of understanding of the whys of Alyosha’s life.
After I finished reading The Boy on the Bridge, I learned that the author had, like Laura, attended a study abroad program in Leningrad in 1982 and had a relationship with a local man during that time. She detailed that experience in a Modern Love column and I definitely recommend checking that out, as her experience was quite fascinating, as were her own photos from 1982 of places mentioned in the book. The story in The Boy on the Bridge departs substantially from that of Standiford’s but the basic scenario is drawn from her own experiences, and it definitely shows through in the book’s tiny details.
A warning to readers: the book summary reveals an important plot point that doesn't happen until nearly the end of the novel, which is too bad, because while there are loads of signs that the thing that happens will happen, it would have been nice to only suspect it and not know for sure based on the summary.
FNL Character Rating: Julie Taylor; Yes, Laura is just normal enough that some people will find her annoying. I adored her realness.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.