The revolution and following turmoil made an orphan of Zoya Andropova. Therefore, she like so many other kids comes to the USA as an orphan and is welcomed in a New Jersey boarding school. She never belongs even though she quickly acquires the language and gets good marks. After her schooling, she can stay on the premises and work in the newly built greenhouse where she fully immerses in her work with the plants. Neither does she have friends, nor a lover. It is just her work and the love for literature that keep her going. There is one author she has worshipped for years, Leo Orlov, another Russian émigré whose works she devours. When Leo comes to teach at the boarding school, Zoya seems close to happiness, but even though Leo returns her love, there is one person in the way of their luck: Vera, his wife.
Adrienne Celt’s second novel “Invitation to a Bonfire” is set in a complicated time and therefore offers several layers of narration. The book can be read against the background of Russian-American confrontation and distrust. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a girl who struggles in her new surroundings. The story provides a good example of group dynamics, of exclusion and bullying, of rich vs. poor. It clearly also broaches the issue of being forced to leave your country, forced to leave behind everything from your family, to your belongings and even your language. And, after all, it is a story about love and being loved and about what people are willing to do for the one they have fallen for.
With such an abundance of topics, it is hard to find a beginning. Let’s start with the protagonist. It really liked Zoya, she is a decent and modest character, she humbly accepts her status in the new school and avoids attracting attention. Even though the other girls play tricks on her, she remains loyal and keeps quiet. She can endure a lot and does not expect life to be fair. After what happened to her family, she knows that justice is not something you can rely on in this world. This is a truth she has accepted and thus, she can follow her ideals.
When she falls under the spell of Leo, you want to shout at her to run, far far away from this man and his wife. You can see that nothing good can come from this relationship – but: what else could she do than immediately fall in love? He is the first to see her, to show her affection and to love her. Her free will is gone and the is easy to manipulate.
The story is not fast paced, actually the love story comes at quite a late point in the novel considering its relevance. What made the narration really lively was the fact that Leo’s letters to his wife and other documents were integrated which allowed you a glimpse at a later point and thus added to the underlying suspense. The author has cleverly constructed the novel and her writing is adorably poetic and multi-layered, is starts with the first sentences which immediately drag you into the novel and don’t let you out before the finishing dot:
“Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. No—let me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly.”