Released: June 2014
When a rebellious young American named Evie leaves New York for jazz-age Paris she hopes to find family, history, adventure and freedom. Her grandmother, Constance, lives there but she is rarely mentioned by the rest of the family. Evie’s melodramatic and attention seeking mother, Jeannie, was brought up by a strict, staid Aunt in the traditional way. Evie does not feel she has anything in common with them and, from the haunting childhood memories she has of Constance, feels that she will find that she has far more in common with her family on the other side of the Atlantic.
Evie heads for Constance’s apartment in the heart of the Russian émigré community of Paris, only to find that Constance has suffered a serious stroke leaving her mute and bedridden. Constance has managed to leave Evie a note asking her to make amends for something. This note is the only thing that stops Evie taking the first boat back to America. It contains very few clues and Evie finds she has to delve deep into her own past as well as the past of many of the Russian émigrés before she can discover what her grandmother was really trying to say. This search leads her to meeting a Russian taxi-driver, Jean, who agrees to help Evie in her quest but ultimately mistrusts her motives at first and is not always as helpful as he could be.
The story has a much more complex design than I’ve outlined here but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for potential readers. It’s a genuinely intriguing and intricate plot with lots of false leads, twists, turns and surprises. It has well-drawn characters that develop and become more interesting as the story progresses. I particularly like the way Evie grows in confidence and manages to find the voice that has eluded her for so long, as well as some adventure. Even minor characters, like Marie-Therese the housekeeper, are well depicted and given a major role to play at times. The novel captures the atmosphere of the time adroitly – the way of life, the scruffy Russian restaurants, the seedy bars, the food and the opposing cultures of the émigrés as well as the indigenous Parisiennes.
The only criticism I have surrounding the book is the continually switching narrative viewpoint which can be jarring. It has two main ones, those of Evie and Jean, but occasionally changes to an omnipresent focalised viewpoint. Although this is sometimes necessary and helps to give a deeper insight into some of the minor characters, supports the plot progression and adds to the building tension, it does become grating when the switches occur mid chapter or towards the end of a chapter.
That said the White Russian is a skilful novel with the right amount of pacing helped by the story taking a new twist each time Evie thinks she has made a breakthrough. It has plenty of foreshadowing as well, making you want to revisit the beginning as soon as the book is finished to work out exactly how this novel was so well planned. The skilful ending offers a sense of resolution for many of the novel’s characters, if not the fairy tale happy ending for everyone. The whole story has a really believable feel to it resulting from the extensive research that Vanora has put into it and because it’s so heavily rooted in the characters and events of the time. This is a novel well worth reading, even if you don’t have much of an interest in Russian culture and history but especially so if you do.