Review: The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

From August of 2002:

I just finished The Bronze Horseman on Saturday. It was an extraordinarily powerful reading experience, and I barely know where to begin.

I identified three major elements in this powerhouse of a book: romantic, historical, and philosophical. In the romantic sense, this was a classic romantic tragedy with the anguished, tormented, and tortured male soul who is soothed by the selfless, loving, accepting female, both fighting against the harsh realities and dominating values in their lives (whether family, cultural, or personal) to find peace. To break free. And of course, you have the heart-breaking climax that drags you under with loss and unbearable sorrow. Had the book focused solely on the romantic element, I would have remained utterly captivated.

The setting–the city of Leningrad under Stalin’s brutal regime and during the horrific siege during the second world war–composed the historical elements. Horseman illustrated in depth and vivid color the claustrophobia of the average Soviet’s living conditions and elicited surges of disgust (in this reader) at the senseless murders of citizens and the rampant paranoid ideology that permeated society. These themes culminated in the tragic fate that befell Alexander’s parents, and the effect this betrayal had on the rest of his life.

The most intriguing element of this book was the philosophical issues it brought to the surface. The words “love,” “sacrifice,” and “selflessness” have been trivialized in the English language, in our materialistic and self-serving American culture–do we truly understand the profound impact of these words? Perhaps after 9/11 we might have an idea. Perhaps. But this book opened my mind for the very first time to what it IS to love, to sacrifice, and to act in a selfless manner. And it was a deep and haunting experience where I was  confronted with my own discomfort…how far would I have gone under the same circumstances…would I have been capable of these complex emotions and actions if I were put to the same tests. I like to think I would pass, but would I truly?

I am convinced that this book was born of passion for the author’s mother country, for the characters, for the elements of her life. An immigrant to America at age ten, she was born in Leningrad herself. Interestingly, she wrote her first impressive novel about a rebellious and troubled teen in Kansas–which is how I originally found her work, having spent my teen years in that unhappy place. Once I read Tully, I was hooked on Ms. Simons emotionally blunt writing, but it was not the book the author was born to write, of that I was certain. The Bronze Horseman was. To me, Horseman seemed the culmination of a life’s purpose. An epic, as poignant and thoughtful as any classic I can think of. Anna Karenina. War and Peace. Any of the great Russian dramatists.

The sequel to Horseman, Tatiana and Alexander (or The Bridge to Holy Cross as published in Australia and New Zealand, as far as I’m aware) is also brilliant, but I will save that review for another posting.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor. Read this book. It will astonish you.

Review of Wild Lavender by Belinda Alexandra (From January 3, 2008)

It’s been many moons since I discovered a story that touched my senses and emotions and enveloped my mind utterly. Readers who shared my enthusiasm for The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simmons recommended Wild Lavender, and I began reading with a sense of skepticism. Horseman was as close to perfection as a novel could get in my eyes, so how could any another book possibly live up to my inflated expectations?

Wild Lavender is initially set  in 1920’s France and continues through the Second World War. As is common in lengthy family sagas, the plots are divided into “before the crisis” events and  “during the crisis” events. The former is Simone Fleuriere’s (the daughter of lavender farmers in Provence) struggle to make something of herself and her life, to overcome the adversity of destitution and dependency on people with very small hearts. The latter revolves around her decisions and tribulations during the war in occupied France.

This book took my breath away. I inhaled the the lavender’s fresh aroma, experienced Parisians’ fear during the occupation, and empathized with Simone’s trials. She is a a fully fleshed out, multifaceted character who pulsates with life. She is heroic in the sense that she puts her life on the line for others, even for pets who are tossed heartlessly out on the street, and handles her own heartbreaks with quiet, if sad, dignity.

I love WW2-era dramas–perhaps, living through a time when I am not personally affected by or asked to sacrifice for the turmoils surrounding me (and enjoying a relatively peaceful existence in the midst of the insanity), I long for a time when all were united in a singular purpose against a black-and-white enemy.  Just as Horseman brought alive this singularly united (and divided) WW2-era Leningrad, Lavender brings WW2-era Paris to life. It is not as mind-blowingly intense as Horseman, which may be a relief to those who don’t enjoy spending nights awake reliving the horrors of Leningrad, but enough passion and suffering is expended in this book to claim a spot in your mind for a long time after you have turned the final page. It is a lengthy novel–over 500 pages–perfect for cold winter evenings, and is what the Brits call a “thumping good read.” I hope, if you decide Wild Lavender is for you, that you enjoy it as much as I did.