The Secret of Clouds
I’ve read and loved two of Alyson Richman’s World War II-era historical novels, so I was really looking forward to her latest novel, The Secret of Clouds. It is set in a completely different time period, and I was eager to see how it would compare to her previous works.
The year is 1999, and twenty-six-year-old Maggie is a sixth grade teacher, about to embark upon her second year of teaching. She’s getting her classroom ready when her boss offers her a position as a private tutor to a local child with a serious health condition. Maggie has never thought of doing a job like this, but something about the offer intrigues her, so she agrees to meet eleven-year-old Yuri and his parents.
Yuri has a rare heart condition that can be traced back to the nuclear explosion that initially caused his parents to flee their native Kiev and make their home in the United States. Initially, I was kind of confused by the references to this event, since not much information is given in the early portions of the novel. The reader does eventually learn what happened and how it affected Yuri and his parents, and those parts of the story ended up being some of my favorite things about this book, but more on that later. Because of his heart problem, Yuri has spent most of his life away from other children his age. His parents and doctors have stressed how important it is that he not exert himself too much. He hates the restrictions placed on him by his poor health, and seems to want nothing more than to live a normal life.
Maggie and Yuri bond almost immediately, and it isn’t long before Maggie agrees to accept the position as Yuri’s tutor. Once she begins working with him, she does everything she can to give him the kinds of experiences other children his age take for granted, something that sometimes puts her at odds with his parents who are concerned that she isn’t taking Yuri’s delicate health into consideration. Still, Maggie persists, and eventually, his parents give in, realizing that stifling Yuri as they have isn’t fair to him.
Most of the story is told from Maggie’s point of view, something that proved problematic for me. Maggie is one of those perpetually happy people who is always looking on the bright side of any situation and I would have liked her so much more if she had been on more of an even keel. As it was, she just seemed to wander around with stars in her eyes, unwilling to acknowledge anything but the good things in her life. She has a long-term boyfriend whom she doesn’t seem to care for very much; in fact, she treats him pretty badly, and doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with that. I honestly felt bad for him. I wanted him to stand up to her, but he was never able to do that.
I was troubled by the relationship between Maggie and Yuri. It’s obvious she cares for him quite a bit, but I struggled to feel good about the way things panned out. I wanted Yuri to have a role in the novel beyond serving as a strange sort of inspiration for Maggie, but that never happened. I never felt Yuri’s character was given the chance to grow and change, and instead, the author’s focus is firmly on Maggie, and how her work with Yuri impacts her.
Yuri’s parents were fabulous, and I wish I could have known more about their lives. His mother was a ballerina, and I adored the parts of the story that focused on her life on the stage. I wish we could have spent more time in the past, as it added an extra layer of depth to the overall arc of the novel.
The Secret of Clouds isn’t a bad book, but neither is it the powerhouse I was hoping it would be. Ms. Richman is a gifted writer, but this particular story simply didn’t resonate with me.