When Laura goes to Leningrad for a semester abroad during the height of the Cold War in 1982, she doesn’t expect to meet–and fall in love with–a young Russian man named Alyosha. With him as her guide, Laura begins to experience the real Russia and all it entails: black-market books and music, smuggled goods, and dissident ideas. The two keep their relationship a secret because it is dangerous for Alyosha to fraternize with Americans and because her school forbids students from dating Russian citizens. But as Laura’s departure nears, she starts to face some real problems and questions. Does Alyosha really love her? Is he just using her for a way into America? How can she leave him behind even though she knows she can’t stay?
Readers looking for an interesting cross-cultural story set in a unique time period won’t be disappointed by this one. Standiford crafts a stand-out historical fiction romance that doesn’t offer easy answers to its readers nor its characters. Memorable, haunting, and absolutely fascinating, this is one that’s not to be missed.
Standiford herself studied abroad in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this novel is at least partially autobiographical. She nails the details about Russia during the time period and paints a picture that is at times stark and bleak and yet beautiful and full of life. It is particularly fascinating to watch Laura’s view of the city of Leningrad–and of Russia in general–change as she experiences the city through the eyes of one of its citizens. These details make the setting a character of its own.
More cynical readers might think they have the plot figured out from the get-go, but Standiford doesn’t offer her readers any pat answers. The characters in this novel feel achingly authentic, and their motivations are as murky as any real human’s. The question of what Alyosha really wants hangs onto Laura and the readers up until the very end. This is definitely not a novel that looks to make sure everyone gets a happy ending.
The Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford. Scholastic: 2013. Library copy.