The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky
Chatto and Windus, 1935
This book tells the story of the Karol family. Boris, Bella and their daughter Helene move from Kiev to St. Petersburg to Finland to Paris as the events of World War I and the Russian Revolution unfold and force the family to flee their homes. This book is a wonderful study of filial relationships, financial hardships and just how deep levels of denial can seep throughout a family.
Some have said that this book is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s life. If its that’s the case, it breaks my heart. The young girl in the story is ever searching for love and acceptance from her parents. Her father is distant, gambling and turn a blind eye to her mother’s affairs. Her mother, is cruel, unloving and always out of arm’s reach. The only person that makes young Helene’s life bearable is her governess, Mademoiselle Rose.
The character of Bella was the most interesting. There are a number of commonalities between Bella and Anna Karenina. The unfaithfulness, the self-indulgence, the lack of maternal instincts, the narcissism and the negative consequences of their actions on the family. A character as complex as Bella must have been something of a novelty at the time this novel was written. Bella defies the stereotypes of happy housewife. She lives for pleasure, luxury and contentment. Lonely Helene merely gets in her war. As the novel progresses, we see Helene age, mature and begin to define herself within the world her parents have created. Her character development is given the most attention, as most of the novel is told through her perspective.
This is a very deep and thoughtful account of a very dysfunctional family. The era in which it takes place adds extra layers of complexity to the characters and their struggles. This is definitely one of my favorite books of the year. And to think, I picked it up on a whim at the bookstore all because of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. It’s actually quite misleading, as very little of the book takes place in Paris. It’s mostly Russia and Finland. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful novel.