Set partly in modern day Boston and partly in 1950s Moscow, Despite the Falling Snow tells the story of Alexander Ivanov as he opens new relationships which will lead him back to the painful memories of his late wife.
I am lucky enough to be able to share with you an extract of this beautiful book.
After dinner they sit in the living room, almost stupefied by the food.
“I can’t believe I ate that much. I can’t move,” Lauren tells him. He offers her a chocolate truffle. “Are you trying to kill me?” she asks.
“Certainly not. I want my present first.”
She struggles up with looks of exaggerated anguish, but refuses his offer of assistance. With difficulty she slides her package into the living room. He comes to where she holds it upright, and glances to her for permission to open it. She nods, an edge of anxiety scoring into her, as she watches him pick at the tape.
“Just rip it open, Uncle Alex. It’s a portrait,” she admits suddenly, unable to wait.
“A portrait of whom?”
She smiles and they continue unwrapping together, leaving curls of gold paper all over the floor. He is about to ask the question again, but now enough strips of paper are removed that what was initially just swathes of textured paint now reveals itself as a white blouse, a neck, a throat… then a chin and a mouth – a familiar mouth. The smile freezes on her face as she sees his watching eyes change from anticipation to shock. Or is it horror?
“Uncle Alex?” she says, taking hold of his hand. She has stopped peeling away the paper, but his free hand reaches up and pulls it loose, an impatient, urgent movement. He must see the rest of it at once. He gasps for air, an alarming sound, for in its shock, his body has forgotten to breathe. Lauren’s hand is on his forehead, stroking, panicking.
“I’m fine,” he whispers.
“Are you sure?”
He does not reply. He is engrossed in the painting. He now realises that he had forgotten what Katya looked like, how she really was. The shape of her nose, the tilt of her chin, the lines on her forehead. Those details that get blurred in memory after months and years, that you find you can only recall by staring at the two photographs that you came away with, and that only return for sweet, ephemeral moments when the beloved’s face comes unsummoned into dreams or recollections. He feels he might cry if he speaks so he says nothing, and Lauren knows him well enough to wait in silence while they both look at the portrait. He forces himself to focus on the work involved, on Lauren’s achievement, as a way out of the labyrinth of emotion that has suddenly claimed him. His niece, Katya’s niece, has captured her aunt with such vivid clarity and life that he has to remind himself that she has in fact never even met her.
“Was it the wrong thing to do?” she asks finally.
He shakes his head to buy time, though there is a part of himself that is almost resentful of what his niece has done. How she has forced right before his eyes, in unrelenting clarity, the vision of his lost wife. His lost love. She waits, sensing that he is displeased in some way – she watches him biting his lip slightly. Perhaps he is trying to regain some control. Then he speaks, as quietly and calmly as he is able.
“Tell me about it,” he says.
Still gripping his hand, she speaks, slowly, carefully, explaining how she worked from the two pictures that he has, and from a couple of Yuri’s photographs, taken when Katya was a teenager, the Katya that he knew before he left Russia. Her features and facial structure were the same, of course, and gave her different angles and expressions to work from.
“And the eyes?” He looks at Lauren for the first time.
“Are they good?” she asks gently.
He nods. They are exact; so true. They look directly at him while revealing very little themselves. Katya could always have a hint of haughtiness about her, and Lauren had captured that too, but she had also placed in those eyes a fierce intelligence and an infinite sadness.
“When I was thinking about this piece, and how to do it, I went through everything I knew about her, and I realised that basically, there were two Katyas. One was my father’s. You know Yuri’s stories,” she smiles. “The laughing, clever kid sister who was always leading him a dance and getting him in trouble with their parents. And then I knew your Katya. Or at least your stories of her,” she adds, to qualify any presumption he might feel she is making.
He waits for her to go on. Tell me, Lauren, what she was like, let me try and feel it again, even though you cannot possibly understand it all.
“That was the Katya I wanted to capture. The bold, strong, vulnerable, angry woman who chose to…”
A quick movement of his head catches her eye and causes her to stop.
“Anyway, that’s what I was trying for,” she finishes mildly.
“You’re a genius, Lauren. It’s almost hard to look at.”
“I’m sorry. The last thing I wanted was to hurt you… It’s funny, I was excited all the time I was painting it, varnishing, even framing just today. It was only when I got it home this afternoon that I had my first panic attack. Wondering if I was really doing the right thing. It must make you miss her all over again.”
They are quiet together for a minute or two before he speaks.
“It does,” he says. “I mean, it only sharpens what I’ve felt for the last forty years. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“As long as you’re okay with it. I can always take it away.”
“No, no. It was a shock, that’s all. I just need some time.”
He sounds more like himself and she is immeasurably relieved. The self-control, the rationality is back, and she is no longer fearful that she has made a terrible mistake. She leads him back to his chair and pokes at the fire, which has settled down into small, licking flames that curl around the last, luminous log of wood.
“I’ll get some tea,” she tells him. “Camomile?”
“If you’re having some?”
He watches as she goes out to the kitchen, leaving him with a precious few moments alone. He glances at the fire for comfort, but the logs are too dry and are spitting and hissing, putting out a violent heat that causes him to move his chair back a little. Closing his eyes intensifies his awareness of the canvas looming behind him. With conscious, almost ostentatious calm, he turns in his chair, and looks at it, at her, once more. She is watching him with an expression that is half-smile, half-frown, an expression that perhaps she never even had during life, but which captures her character perfectly. He feels a stab of guilt and swallows, but his mouth is dry. He looks for water, but there is only the remains of their wine. Lauren will come soon with the tea, he reminds himself. In the meantime, Katya is regarding him with that slight smile, without accusation or blame. He has always known that she would never have blamed him for what happened – his own pain and guilt have been punishment enough. But that knowledge has only ever reinforced the sense of exactly how much he lost when she died.
If you want more details of the book, look no further than the fantastic previous stops on this blog tour!