It has been a long time coming. This review has been one that I have written and re-written over and over again just plainly because my feelings toward it have been so hard to articulate effectively. They are a comfort, an excitement and a reminder that literature can still evoke in us a certain indescribable feeling.
I have read and re-read all three books so many times that I can almost tell you the series of events that transpired blindly. I speak of the characters as people that I know personally. And whilst there is nothing predictable about these books you find yourselves with such an affinity to the character you would scoff to yourself and say “ha! Typically Tatiana”.
The novel is conveniently named after the classic Pushkin poem “The Bronze Horseman” and whilst I have never read the poem myself, I understand that the poem lends itself to something along the lines of “What price are you willing to pay in war?” a question which becomes the very baseline of not only the love story but of familial and friend relationships within the book.
The first book is set in the communal living apartment of the Metanov family and starts off on the first day that Hitler reneges his Molotov Ribbentrop Pact with the Soviet Union and decides to invade. The character of Tatiana in this opening section of the book has often been criticised by the many other reviews that I have read as being aloof and disastrously out of touch with reality. Yet in my opinion she was the very epitome of what a 17 year old girl would have been like in 1941.
In the opening chapter of book we are introduced to the plethora of characters that she lives with. Her grandmother, grandfather, sexy sultry sister, her twin brother and her mother and father. Her brother is sent away on a camp to be “safe” from conscription and Tatiana is sent over to buy supplies from the store by her family because they’ve just heard that a war is breaking out. Rather Tatiana puts on a fancy dress and high heels and eats ice cream on the bus stop bench. In my opinion it’s lucky she did that, because that’s where she (and we) meet Alexander (Anthony) Belov. Striking Red Army soldier roaming and protecting the streets of Leningrad.
I think you can guess what happens next. They see each other and it’s inevitably love at first sight. Beautiful young, blonde, Tatiana eating melting ice cream on the bench and singing to herself. And the alpha male soldier guarding the street with a rifle almost the size of Tatiana herself strapped to his back.
Almost immediately the sense of forbidden love is brooding. Something has to go wrong and you just know it. Of course it does and that’s depicted to us when we learn that Tatiana’s older sister Dasha with the long, dark, curly hair is already madly in love with Alexander, having met him “down by the bridge” the night before. You understand immediately that they were up to no good at that bridge, but it’s all too much for innocent Tatiana to understand at that point. Alexander walks Tatiana with all the newly acquired supplies which he helped her choose to her home and that’s when they all realise the situation.
Tatiana and Dasha Metanova are diametrically opposed in their personalities. So much so, that at times I found Tatiana’s martyrdom and Dasha’s selfish cruelty to be extremely un realistic. Within the book she repeatedly proclaims that Dasha is “her bestfriend” but in all honesty I never understood why, because to me she seemed to be not only a horrible sister but a horrible person in general. Nevertheless, we understand that Tatiana is willing to step aside to let Dasha have him. Although Dasha isn’t aware of the situation, her possession over Alex is cringe worthy from the start. Tatiana steps aside, but she continues to see Alexander secretly – while her sister dates him publicly.
Within the first novel we receive drip drip information and learn that Alexander Belov is actually the son of Harold and Jane Barrington – American communist sympathisers who left their life of extravagance and opulence in America to come to the Soviet Union and further enforce their communist beliefs. His real name is Anthony Barrington and took the name Alexander Belov after his parents were prosecuted in the Soviet Union for being American and accused of being American spies and consequently executed. He finds himself living with a Russian family on an isolated farm and when they all die from disease, he assumes the name of their youngest son Sasha (Alexander) Belov (this is explored further in the second novel). Tatiana and Dimitry are the only two people who are aware of Alexander’s immense secret and of course, this is already evoking a sense of foreboding within the reader. “This can’t end well” I heard myself say out loud.
As the first novel progresses we go from enjoying scenery of beautiful warm, sunny Leningrad (now modern day St Petersburg) and scenes of walking through the gardens between Tatiana and Alexander . To the bitter cold, snowing beginnings of (attempted) German occupation. Food is becoming scarce, German soldiers are becoming ruthless, people are going to any lengths to survive, and the famine is beginning. The love story between Tatiana and Alexander is progressing despite Dasha’s obnoxious behaviour and the many attempts of Alexander’s friend Dimitry toward Tatiana. A small, dirty, over zealous bastard that can’t seem to understand the meaning of “no”.
The book continues and the deaths begin. (SPOILER ALERT).
Practically every single person dies. Every.single.person. Tatiana’s grandma, grandpa, her neighbour, cousin, aunty, her mother, her father, her brother is missing presumed dead and finally at the end of the first part of the book her sister Dasha dies. As grim as this sounds, but actually this is the best part of the first book. Simmons does an extraordinary job at accurately describing the way which famine and malice pervaded every single element of their lives. It was harrowing, and awful.
Despite this all, Tatiana’s martyrdom and self sacrifice does not wane. She continues to ration her own scarce food and even when all her family members are stealing from her and eating more than their share, she continues to think of every other person but herself. Her parents repeatedly scold and beat her and she is attacked on the street by someone to steal her bread. Every character becomes incredibly horrible and there is a part of me which feels as though this happens just so Alexander can protect her.
The love that progresses between Alexander and Tatiana throughout the first book is undoubtedly my favourite love throughout all three books. The first part of “The Bronze Horseman” ends with the death of every single member of Tatiana’s family and the transportation of Tatiana by Alexander to Lazarevo to live with a group of older ladies in a beautiful cottage by the lake. Although we are never really told who these ladies are or how Alexander knew that she would be able to live with them – they are still a welcome edition to a book that has been otherwise riddled with negativity. Now it is Springtime again and the second half of the first book is an extraordinary description of the blossoming young love of Alexander and Tatiana.
However I must note, that at times parts of the second book are repetitive and boring. There are only so many times Tatiana and Alexander can swim in the kama, bake blueberry pies and make love. It also bothered me that Tatiana was able to seemingly move forward from the fact that every single member of her family is dead and she is now not only an orphan but destitute if it weren’t for the kindness of these old ladies.
Alexander is a character who I loved deeply, but in the second part of the book he also starts to become overly aggressive and needlessly hot-headed. Punching walls, grabbing her face with his hands, pushing her onto the couch. Such things that are supposed to be ‘sexy’ but kind of just make you see the beginning symptoms a violent relationship.
Once we push past all the love making and factory of blueberry pies. We see the issue of Alexander’s identity being addressed when he feels that authorities are catching onto the fact that his real name isn’t Alexander Belov and that he could be the son of executed American “spies” Harold and Jane. Tatiana and Alexander are now officially married and so this means that whatever harrowing events will happen to the son of executed spies will be ten-fold worse for a Soviet national married to a spy (namely Tatiana). Feeling that their future in the Soviet Union is bleak, Tatiana begins to conspire with the American Red Cross volunteer who works at her hospital to help smuggle her, and at that point, a severely injured Alexander out of the Soviet Union and into Sweden.
Whilst Alexander is in a coma from being severely injured in battle, Tatiana literally hooks herself up to Alexanders arm so she can give him blood from her own body as he was in desperate need and there was none available. This legitimately made me SICK. Was that supposed to be romantic? Why didn’t she just drain her blood into a pouch and then administer it accordingly? Why on god’s green earth did it have to be direct? Anyway.
We also learn that Tatiana is now pregnant. I wasn’t surprised as it was an occurring thought “what kind of contraception is this girl on?” whenever Simmons would divulge into details of the multiple sexual practices performed in one day. So she drains her own blood into Alexander while she is pregnant. Great work Tats!
The book ends with Alexander sacrificing himself and pretending to be dead so that Tatiana can agree to go with the Red Cross volunteer across the border without any protestation that he was not coming. The first book ends as a cliff hanger and you do not know exactly the state of Tatiana or Alexander, but I guess that is why it is one of three.
Although I have been a bit sarcastic in regards to some parts of this book, I nevertheless love it and enjoyed it immensely. It is the kind of book I would only recommend to certain people though, you definitely need a particular romantic personality to enjoy a war-romance novel to this calibre. The book alone is quite dense, but coupled with the other two in the trilogy it becomes a story which is so close to your heart and one which you enjoy re-reading. Overall, I rate the first book 4* out of 5*.