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.