One can argue that this is but one of a million love stories ever written. A tall, brave soldier and a diminutive blonde nurse; the heartbreak and terror of World War II; sex, partings and reunions, deaths. And yet to say that Tatiana and Alexander is a love story is like saying that Niagara is a waterfall. It's emotionally exhausting, but turning the pages is as effortless as jumping at the sound of a gunshot.
And you thought its predecessor, The Bronze Horseman, was impossible to set aside.
In the first book, 17-year-old Tatiana Metanova - sitting on a Leningrad bench, singing and eating ice cream as though Russia hasn't declared war against Germany that very day - suddenly, and with the inexorability of gravity, notices a Red Army soldier staring at her from across the street. Since then, readers have cheered and wept for this young woman and her soldier, through the lies and malice of other people, through the siege of Leningrad, through the lush, sunlit ecstasy of a place called Lazarevo. The way that TBH finally ends has had fans speculating on message boards, devouring frustratingly vague sequel information, and joining online support groups for the breathless, two-year long wait for this book.
Which is here at last. And the world is a better place for authors who can write huge books relatively quickly.
If the high emotion of TBH seems impossible to replicate, the sequel feels written from the highest peak of that emotion. The reader's intimacy with the characters - why are they so consumed by each other, even now that they're apart? - is presumed at the very beginning. Because only a compelling need to witness their reunion will see you through the tantalizing, intricate braiding of three narratives in the first quarter of the book. One is the story of Alexander's boyhood and the tragic idealism of his American-born parents, who immigrated to Russia in 1930. Another is set in the present time as Alexander, trapped in the clutches of the Russian secret police, wonders what has become of his wife. (Because of his American ancestry, Alexander has been accused of espionage and stripped of his army rank. Believing he is dead, a pregnant Tatiana reluctantly escaped to America at the end of TBH.) The last narrative is told from her point of view, as she struggles to survive in New York with their infant son, one foot in the land of the living and the other with the memory of her husband.
But before the past catches up with the present, there is a lovely retelling of how Alexander and Tatiana met, fell in love, and anxiously hoarded those all-too-brief honeymoon days. In TBH, most of these scenes are seen through Tatiana's eyes; this time they're seen entirely from Alexander's point of view. Then the story dramatically picks up in the present time as the lovers - separated by Byzantine governments, petty tyrants, and an ocean - try to find their way back to each other.
For the reader who hasn't had a good night's sleep since closing TBH, the first flashback-heavy part of Tatiana and Alexander may be emotionally difficult to get through. The hoped-for reunion always feels several hundred pages too far off. But patience in this case is rewarded with intimate revelations about Alexander. We get to know him as a 12-year-old philosopher, as well as an irresistible, heartless young bachelor. Most interestingly, we see him as Tatiana's pining beau, so outwardly cynical and dominant, and yet secretly, helplessly besotted.
We learn he is not the closest a man could ever get to a superhero, which he appears to be in much of TBH. By contrast, Tatiana and Alexander is about his sins, his weakness, his heartbreak. He is that wounded warrior every woman has ever dreamed of possessing. No wonder Tatiana couldn't let him go.
Which brings us to the question: What does Alexander see in Tatiana? Much of TBH portrays her as a self-sacrificing ingénue, and it's true that her innocence is like oxygen to him. But most of all, the sequel reveals that she overtakes him in courage and sheer indomitableness. There is a scene in which they playfully debate who's boss between them, and guess who ends up being on top? This scene comes to mind during a tense moment when their very lives hinge on Tatiana obeying Alexander. But then he knows and you know what will happen. Everyone knows who is really the boss between these two.
In many ways this book is much like its predecessor. Stalin and the NKVD are at their callous, unconscionable worst; there is a new round of Russian jokes to alleviate the pain; and Alexander's God takes center stage. And as always, frustratingly, the cloud of doom hovers on the lovers' fleeting moments together. But for all that, this book is predicated on hope; it flies on the fragile promise of Tatiana and Alexander finally riding out into the sunset together, which everyone knows is their due. Many questions are satisfied aside from whether or not they finally have their HEA. Was Alexander sleeping with Tatiana's sister Dasha while he was courting Tatiana? Did Alexander and Tatiana save themselves for each other, or did they have lovers during their separation? Was it a long separation?
For many TBH fans, these are traumatic questions. The sequel resolves them one by one, masterfully and very pleasingly. All of it in Simons' uncomplicated prose, which is all the more haunting for its nuanced spareness. So please do read it - it's worth the drainage of tear-ducts if only to know Alexander's thoughts when he first saw the great love of his life sitting on that bench.
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