Andrei comes from a French and Russian background. Living in Russia but spending each summer with his French-speaking grandmother he develops an identity crisis coinciding with adolescence and tries to discover who he is. Part of that search is working out which is better – the lost France of Charlotte’s memories – or the Russia he lives in today. In the end it is unclear which wins other than the power of survival to cope in exile and he discovers that he has come from a bitterly sad Russian background and the Frenchness was more of an illusion that he thought.
Is it well written?
Unlike Proust who for most of the time is recollecting his own memories this relies heavily on the experiences of his grandmother and there are passages of narrative around her experiences in the world wars, civil war and revolution. Ironically Proust gets a couple of mentions being seen in Paris at the turn of the century by Makine’s grandmother. The story develops its own plot, which is whether or not he will see her again after leaving Russia and then ends with a twist that leaves both the author and the reader looking at all of the preceding relationships in a different light. Without that sense of victory/tragedy it would wane towards the end but it manages to keep going and it leaves you wondering where he goes next.
Should it be read?
The version of the book I purchased was a Reading Group special edition with some questions at the back to help start debates going and on the front the blurb said that it was a national bestseller in the US and had been short listed for various prizes. I stumbled across it by a web search on Proust and feel that it is one of those books that is all too easy to miss, which is a shame as it deserves to be read and for anyone with an interest in memory novels or Russian history this should be added to the reading list.
More Russian history or literature to try and put a perspective on what it felt like to live through the war and then Stalinism. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a great short introduction to the brutality of the Stalinist Gulag system, which rears its head in Dreams of My Russian Summers
Version read – Scribner Paperback Fiction (Reading Group Edition)