The White Russian by Vanora Bennett

The story of The White Russian drew me in from the start. We meet a girl who speaks in first person, but doesn’t tell us her name. She has just got off the boat from America in Le Havre and is on the train to Paris. While people around her are going to join the Spanish Civil War or see what’s happening in Berlin, she feels a little silly that her big adventure is meeting her grandmother.

The early chapters jump around in her timeline as the author slowly elucidates her background as the daughter of a highly-strung woman from an East Coast society family in the early twentieth century. Her mother and grandmother are estranged, but when the girl turns 18 the grandmother offers to pay for her to go to university. Her mother doesn’t see the point and fears book-reading isn’t very helpful in women, but eventually acquiesces. After three years at university, the girl is not willing to give up the freedom she’s come to enjoy so she books passage on a boat to Europe.

The author does write from other characters’ points of view, like the grandmother, Constance, and her housekeeper, Marie-Thérèse. We only find out the girl’s name when she introduces herself to Marie-Thérèse’s husband as Evie. She arrives at her grandmother’s house to find she’s just had a stroke. Evie tries to soothe her but Constance clearly has something she must tell her granddaughter, and has scribbled some notes. Before Constance can recover, a disturbance downstairs gives her another stroke and she dies.

Evie deciphers the note and has her own adventure into the world of the Russian émigré community in Paris, which her grandmother was involved with. But who is this Zhenya that Evie must protect and make amends to? With the help of Jean, a young writer, they both find much more than they expected.

The story of loss, regret, loyalty and betrayal is expertly interwoven with historical detail. I learned about the plight of the White Russians, expelled from Russia after the revolution and learning to live without position, money or power in France. I learned about the shady dealings of the forerunner of the KGB, and how some White Russians would have willingly made a deal with Hitler to get back into Russia.

The human stories of mothers losing children and feeling that pain for the rest of their lives were very moving. The naivety of an American girl in Paris, trying desperately not to be naïve, and seeing how she grows up through the story was expertly written. When the unfolding history of family tragedy starts to turn into a gripping tale of intrigue and murder, there were a number of ways the story could have turned, and I had no idea how it was going to end.

One thing’s for sure, after this brilliant introduction to her work, I’m going to be buying all Vanora Bennett’s other novels.

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