I thought about doing this book set in Russia in February since the coldest days I've ever spent in the world were in Russia in February, but this story is too good to wait a month.
So here we go!
If you love dogs, if you love conflict, and if you love visions, you'll love Lara's Gift. The basic premise - Lara, daughter of the kennel master for an aristocratic breeder of borzoi in Russia living shortly before the Russian Revolution wants to grow up to become the kennel master, an almost unheard of feat, given she is a girl. She also has prescient visions about the dogs, which, given the role Rasputin and his "visions" played in Russian politics makes for a dangerous situation for Lara.
The story begins with the birth of a litter and Lara's vision about the runt, Zar, her father would put down. Lara convinces him otherwise, but in return she must raise the dog, a challenge she readily accepts. Flash forward 3 years and Zar's and Lara's stories begin to unfold together as her family attempts to prepare her for marriage, but her visions of Zar begin to come true, putting him, her, and other dogs in the kennel in danger.
Spoiler alert (for all of you who love books about dogs, or have readers who do, but worry about the dead dog factor) - This book does have a dead dog, BUT, it's not Zar, and it's also not a dog we really come to care about, which makes it a lot more bearable.
The setting of this book is such a breath of fresh air in kidlit. Russia! How many children's books are set in Russia?!? Culturally, it's a smorgasbord of other. Also, it's way more accessible for the slightly older audience, who enjoy Russian literature but, say, gave up after 500 pages into War and Peace and called a truce.
Stylistically, O'Brien interweaves multiple, related plots with ease. Her characters are genuine, believable and interesting. And she is gifted in her ability to make a foreign culture so accessible. At the climax, however, I felt the emotional conflict inside Lara gave way to pragmatism perhaps a little too easily. Without spoiling the ending, let me say (rather vaguely), Lara's sacrifice isn't given enough emotional weight, which diminishes what would otherwise have been a far more bittersweet (Russian?) and satisfying ending for me.
I understand the O'Brien's plot choice. The audience isn't predominantly an adult one. How far can we go as children's writers to do justice to the emotional reality of choices without overwhelming our younger audience?
Full disclosure - I know Annemarie from my MFA at Vermont College; however, I was not solicited to write a review and purchased this book with my own rubles.
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.