In the flood of daily news headlines, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a time when the US government, if not always its citizens, took pride in welcoming immigrants to these shores. So, although neither I nor anyone else involved in the timing of my latest podcast interview with Adrienne Celt planned the coincidence, it seems somehow appropriate to feature a novel that traces the divergent but ultimately converging life histories of three migrants.
In this case, the force driving the characters’ decision to leave their homeland is the chaos created by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the new Bolshevik regime.
Lev Orlov—explicitly inspired by the well-known author Vladimir Nabokov, here recast as a writer of science fiction—and his wife, Vera, flee the disintegrating Russian Empire because their aristocratic backgrounds leave them without a place in the land of their birth. They are “former people,” in the language of the 1920s.
Zoya Andropova, in contrast, should have no trouble fitting into the new Soviet Union. A peasant by birth, she is the daughter of a revolutionary and a loyal member of the Young Pioneers. But the October Revolution, like the French Revolution before it, proved all too willing to eat its own children. When Zoya’s mother dies and her father disappears (i.e., is shot by the state), Zoya ends up in an orphanage. A US charity intervenes and sweeps her off to the New World. And there, in due course, Zoya’s trajectory intersects with that of the Orlovs—producing, not to put too fine a point on it, fireworks worthy of the Fourth of July.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:
Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest of her father, a strong supporter of the very regime that has now taken his life. But rescued she is, by well-meaning Americans, who soon dump her at a wealthy boarding school where she struggles to retain far more than her name. She takes refuge in literature, in particular by the émigré writer Lev (Leo) Orlov, whose science fiction transports her to more satisfying times and places.
So perhaps it is no surprise that when Orlov shows up to teach at the school where Zoya, having nowhere else to go, has moved from student to worker, she tumbles into love with him, ignoring both his advances to the other girls and his very present and controlling wife, Vera. Zoya charts the evolution of this romantic triangle in her diary, which we read, interspersed with letters from Lev to Vera.
As Adrienne Celt notes early on, Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) is inspired by the life of the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. But as the story builds, it leaves the details of Nabokov’s life and marriage behind, roaring out of a deliberately quiet academic beginning until it reaches a place that upends much of what we have believed up to that point.
The Literary Hub chose this interview for its Friday Feature this week, but because of the holiday the staff decided to run the post on Monday, in the expectation of greater traffic. So you can find their transcript and listen to the podcast by clicking on the preceding link.