Lacking in Depth of Character, Emotionally Deficient, and Descriptively Wanting
Laura Reid goes to Leningrad for a semester abroad as Cold War paranoia is peaking in 1982. She meets a young Russian artist named Alexei and soon, with Alexei as her guide, Laura immerses herself in the real Russia — a crazy world of wild parties, black-market books and music, and smuggled letters to dissidents. She must keep the relationship secret; associating with Americans is dangerous for Alexei, and if caught, Laura could be sent home and Alexei put under surveillance or worse. At the same time, she’s been warned that Soviets often latch onto Americans in hopes of marrying them and thus escaping to the United States. But she knows Alexei loves her. Right?
As June approaches — when Laura must return to the United States — Alexei asks Laura to marry him. She’s only nineteen and doesn’t think she’s ready to settle down. But what if Alexei is the love of her life? How can she leave him behind? If she has a chance to change his life, to rescue him from misery, shouldn’t she take it?
I must admit, I immediately worried that this story would be similar to Anna and the French Kiss, which I kind of loathed. The Boy on the Bridge started off fairly well, with Laura describing life as an American studying abroad in Leningrad. Feeling isolated and lonely in her dreary life in Russia, Laura meets Alexei, or Alyosha, as he prefers to be called, when, on the bridge near her dormitory, he rescues her from the torment of aggressive gypsy beggar women. The implied violence of these women made for a scary scene. But alas, the scene with the gypsies and their swaddled “babes” was perhaps the first and final time there was palpable tension in The Boy on the Bridge.
To be fair, this is not a bad book. The plot moves along nicely, while the uncertainty of Alyosha’s motives sustains enough mystery to help keep the pages turning. Though not dense with historical detail, young readers will learn a thing or two about life in totalitarian Russia under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. Apart from mentions of things like the popular diet drink, Tab, and music like Neil Young, the American kids don’t seem all that different from modern day characters.
The real weaknesses of the book are these: Laura falls nearly instantly in love with Alyosha, as does he with her; there is never any real tension — I am never honestly afraid for Laura (it seems the worst that could happen is that she will be sent home) or Alyosha (who faces the larger danger); and the narrative description is not adept enough to successfully convey the beauty and allure of the Russian setting or of its historical landmarks. I was intrigued to find out that much of the novel is informed by the author’s real-life experiences during a semester abroad. Upon visiting the author’s website and seeing pictures of such places as Dom Knigi (House of Books), Nevsky Prospekt, and The Summer Garden, I was struck by what seemed a huge lost opportunity. She never described those places.
Overall, while The Boy on the Bridge is a fast, effortless read, it will not be particularly memorable or moving. For all the professed love that takes place on the page, little emotion is felt by the reader. I feel like we never knew who Laura was. And what little we know of Alyosha makes us pity more than admire him. What could have been a poetic, aching tale just falls flat.
— Dawn Teresa
3 of 5 Hearts. Lacking in Depth of Character, Emotionally Deficient, and Descriptively Wanting.
While you’ll understand the harsh Russian conditions and the desperate hope and hunger for freedom that many citizens carried, you won’t feel more than a vague sadness. And that’s a shame. Not recommended for purchase. If you are inclined to read it, borrow it from the library.