(I was going through my drafts folder recently and realised I never published this post – even though I wrote this back in 2010. Whoops. Anyway, here it is!)
I’m always a bit late to the party. The Bronze Horseman, after all, is nearly a good 10 years old. But then again, this isn’t the kind of book a 12-year-old would appreciate, so I’m glad I waited.
I devoured all three books within a week. The gods MUST have been shining down on me. Upon finishing The Bronze Horseman, I decided I absolutely couldn’t start Sophie’s Choice. One, it sounded way too depressing. Two, I ABSOFREAKINGLYLUTELY had to find out what happened to the characters. I mean, I knew they both survived and managed to live. The existence of the trilogy and a little Googling told me that much. But I had to read the story for myself.
I haven’t come across anyone in real life who hasn’t gushed about The Bronze Horseman, and now I understand why. While I struggled to make it through Paullina Simons’ other most well-known novel, The Girl in Times Square, I stayed up all hours of the night, unable to tear myself away from this.
As for the two sequels…if you’ve fallen in love with Tatiana and Alexander, then read them. The second I found infinitely more brutal in its depiction of war, and the third – set in free America, as they try to build a life from the ground up – verged on tedious at times. I felt like the story could have ended easily after either the first or second book, but I was glad to be able to follow them through until the very end.
The Bronze Horseman
A girl sits on a bench, eating ice cream. Across the road, a soldier watches Tatiana in her white dress with red roses. He is Alexander Belov – or in a previous life, Alexander Barrington, a major in the Red Army. Thus begins their story. Against all odds – the cold, the hunger, the bombs – they take turns saving each other’s lives and attempt to find a way out of hell. A sister who loves the same man she does, a coward determined to bring Alexander down – there is nothing they can’t survive. He brings her food, walks her home from the factory where she now makes weapons and trucks, and gives her a reason to cling on even as her family disintegrates.
While at times I found her prose overly flowery – especially the parts written from Alexander’s point of view – it was a minor flaw. I also found Tatiana’s stubborness and selflessness incredibly frustrating. It was almost as if she didn’t want happiness for herself. But I think a lot of that has to do with the Russian family structure, and because the strength of the bond between her and Dasha is only hinted at, it was hard to understand her motives. Despite that, it’s one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve read in a long time. To me, it epitomised everything a great book should have. Great love and great sacrifice.
Tatiana and Alexander / The Bridge to Holy Cross
While TBH is very much Tatiana’s book – the story of her family, her love, her survival – the opposite is true of TBTHC. Alexander is a young American boy thrust into the heart of communist Russia, forced to grow up far too quickly and to fight just to live. From his very first days in the Soviet Union, through to his very last, we learn what made him who he is. In between these flashbacks, we read about his ordeals in battle following straight on from the first book, and later, in various concentration camps.
Meanwhile, Tatiana is in America, working as a nurse and having given birth to a son named after his father. For much of the book, she doesn’t even know if he’s still alive. She tries to build a new life in New York, and puzzles over the last words he said to her. But once she finds out for sure, she packs her bags and heads back to bring him home. From there, it’s a knuckle-biter right up until the very last page.
I flew through this one – it wasn’t an easy read and I didn’t want to linger on it. The thought of of a countryside where millions of bodies lie buried in shallow graves just below the ground… Simons writes as one not far removed from this reality.
The Summer Garden
I was apprehensive going into this – there were so many bad reviews, and honestly, it didn’t sound like the most enticing of plots. The jacket blurb is downright cringeworthy. It’s a far cry from the first two; Tatiana and Alexander are not in a war zone anymore, but they are dealing with their baggage and memories, and trying to adjust to living a ‘normal’ life and fighting over mundane things as well as the big issues – like his war-torn body and inability to forget the atrocities of the Gulag. The inability of these two, who’ve lived through the most unimaginable atrocities, to be unable to communicate about the simplest of things is beyond frustrating. And if you loved Alexander in the first two like I did, he will break your heart in this.
Pacewise, TSG is very slow and suffers from poor editing. At 800-plus pages, there ‘s plenty that could have been cut. I loved reading about their travels and efforts to settle in America, but it simply got repetitive after a few chapters. Flashbacks to Tatiana’s childhood offer more insight into her personality, but left me wondering just how much of a purpose they served.
One review suggested reading to the end of the Vietnam section, then skipping ahead to the last chapter. (Yes, of course there’s war in this book, too! I have learned more about 20th century conflict this week than I ever retained in three years of taking history as a subject. It is insane how willing people are to die for a cause…and how many more died unwillingly as a result. Reading about real historical events – even if fictionalised – is somehow different from, say, reading Brave New World or 1984. Burning books. Throwing away mirrors. Leaving the dead on the streets. Ears of the state everywhere. All powerful state. Eating sawdust.) And it’s not a bad idea. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that there’s a thoroughly misplaced chapter devoted to Cold War debate that simply does not belong in the book. Thankfully, of course they do – eventually – manage to heal and to give us the happy ending we want.
And handily enough, you can buy the whole trilogy as a set!