The Boy on the Bridge
Author: Natalie Standiford (website | twitter)
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Source: Toronto Public Library
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
Publication date: July 30, 2013
My rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars
Laura is a nineteen-year old college girl studying abroad in Leningrad in 1982. She’s a bit at loose ends, not really sure where she stands in a relationship back home. She comes to Russia to further her studies, but also because she wants to feel some of the passion and drama that she sees in Russian literature.
It’s obviously a big culture shock to be in Leningrad, and Laura and her American friends are definitely homesick. So it’s no surprise that when Laura meets Alyosha, a Russian boy, she immediately responds positively, completely ignoring the warnings she’s heard about Russians befriending Americans and proposing marriage, and the fact that there’s tons of scrutiny on the American students – they’re each placed with a Soviet sympathizing student in the dorms, they’re not allowed to go anywhere after 10pm, and all of their activities are carefully monitored.
I knew I needed to read this book after reading Natalie Standiford’s Modern Love article in the New York Times where she discusses the real life circumstances that The Boy on the Bridge is based on: her own life. I was captivated by her story of falling in love and being healed during her study abroad year…and the practical dangers of being in love with a Russian before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Initially, I just didn’t believe that anyone could be that naive or unsafe as to do some of the things that Laura does. She misses curfew constantly to spend time with Alyosha, despite warnings that she could be kicked out of the program. She even sneaks him into a shop for foreigners that is heavily guarded by the militia. The adult in me kept thinking how reckless she was being – and then I would think of some of the stupid things I had done when I was travelling abroad.
|Me and a friend in Belgrade | One of the many bombed-out buildings there | Me trying horse(!) steak
Part of Zagreb, the big fortress in Belgrade | Tito’s grave | Out dancing with new friends | A billboard in Yugoslavian
In fact, in 2006, when I was alone in Belgrade, Yugoslavia during my own European trip, I met a guy in a cafe and he offered to show me around in his car…and I went. In retrospect, that was pretty stupid. Luckily, I had a nice afternoon with him showing me the sights, and I didn’t get into any trouble…but I totally could have.
The difference, though, is that I wasn’t in a place that was still behind the Iron Curtain, where people were encouraged to spy and report on one another. The entire time I read the book, I felt an unsettled feeling about Leningrad and the people that Laura met. I was just as suspicious as her friend Karen, and probably more paranoid than anyone in the book.
Maybe it was that suspicion that made it hard for me to connect with Laura. While I liked the book, I must admit that I never really believed or felt invested in Laura and her love for Alyosha. I was constantly trying to figure out what their motives were. Their love for each other seemed to spring out of nowhere – Alyosha says I love you almost immediately, and with the warnings from the professors…it just seemed like Laura is trying to find a way to make life better for herself. As much as I was suspicious that Alyosha was usuing Laura to get a green card, it also felt like Laura was using her purported love for Alyosha to get herself back on her feet after her previous failed relationship.
It’s hard to get over that unsettled feeling…and indeed, I don’t think that Standiford wants you to. The uniqueness of the novel is in just how precarious Laura and Alyosha’s love is. It’s fraught with so many problems and perils, from language barriers to deep-seated mistrust of another culture. The brilliance of Standiford’s writing lies in her creation of an atmosphere of confusion, and uncertainty in Laura and Alyosha’s relationship, and in how to resolve the unspoken elephant-in-the-room of just how different Laura and Alyosha’s worlds are.
Travel: This book was a little bit of a primer on what to see in St. Petersburg – if I ever go, I’ll definitely be checking out the Summer Garden, Dom Knigi, and some of the other awesome sites that Laura visits.
Kick-Ass Secondary Characters: The voice of reason in the book was Karen, Laura’s roommate, who said all the things that I was thinking about Laura breaking the rules. Karen was totally my homegirl. Dan, Laura’s hallmate, was also pretty cool, but in a crazy way that completely reminded me of some of the people I met in college.
The Final Word
The Boy on the Bridge is elegiac and thoughtful, simply written, with flashes of insight that reminded me of my own study abroad experiences. Although I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I would have hoped, the story is memorable and the themes really make you think. If you like bittersweet books that makes you question the nature of love, this one might be for you.
THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE is out now. Will you be picking it up? How do you feel about bittersweet love stories? Are you into books with travel or foreign places? Sound off in the comments!