The Art of Starting Over

I spend a lot of time defending chick lit against negative high-brow bibliophiles. I’ve started many a post about how strongly I feel about the importance and enjoyment of this genre. You’d think with how often I defend it that I would also favor the genre against all others. It doesn’t, however, quite take the top spot. That belongs to another genre that I also frequently defend and one that critics despise almost as much as chit lit: historical fiction. Why is the best kind of reading criticized the most??

I’ll never be able to answer that question, but I can tell you that, when done right, historical fiction novels have me flying through them at lightning speed. Usually, I lean toward war-related reads when perusing this genre, but — as you know — I’ve been slightly obsessed with learning about Russia and the Cold War lately. So after Red Sparrow failed to live up to my impossibly high expectations, I figured I needed to draw back into a genre that rarely lets me down, so that I could get my Cold War fix.

I came across Our Woman in Moscow a few months ago in a Buzzfeed books newsletter discussing new novels that were sure to make a splash. It seemed to have everything I was looking for: historical fiction, a Cold-War era timeline and World War II, and an intriguing plot. I didn’t realize I’d also get some badass female characters written with City of Girls-like characterization. I cannot sugarcoat it: This book made a giant splash, and I absolutely devoured it.

Ruth and Iris Macallister are living a grand life in Rome in 1940 when they meet an American diplomat, Sasha Digby. After spending her life in Ruth’s bold and fearless shadow, Iris is taken aback when Sasha takes an interest in her rather than her sister, which then causes her to fall head over heels. But Ruth doesn’t trust Sasha, an enigmatic idealist and alcoholic whose opinions lean very far into communist territory. Her distrust in him splinters her relationship with Iris and causes a massive blowout the day they’re supposed to head home to America with war engulfing Europe.

Fast forward to 1952, and an FBI agent comes knocking on Ruth’s fabulous New York door to ask about Iris. The interesting thing is that Ruth has just received a postcard from her sister — the first communication they’ve had in 12 years. This is also the first time anyone has seen or heard from Iris since 1948 when she, Sasha, and their children mysteriously vanished from their London home. At the time, rumors had circled about whether Soviet intelligence had eliminated them or if they had willingly defected to the Iron Curtain. So what does this new and surprising communication mean for Iris?

As Ruth uncovers the truth about her sister, she learns that Iris kept more secrets than she could have imagined, that her marriage was rarely as it seemed, and that maybe Iris — not Ruth — was always the boldest and most courageous of the two.

“The accumulation of age and experience changes us daily. If it doesn’t, you’d better worry.”

Our Woman in Moscow

I honestly struggled to write this summary because so much happened in this novel. And to top it off, author Beatriz Williams wrote it with different timelines that don’t follow a chronological order and with different points of view. Now you may read that sentence and assume this book will be confusing and hard to follow. But au contraire, my friends. Oh contraire. Author Beatriz Williams defies all expectations and masters the arts of structure, plot, and timeline. The fact that she could pull it all off signals genius to me.

I actually love that this novel isn’t written in a straight-forward manner and that it jumps around. That structure — with competing narratives and timelines — keeps the secrets, which have been years in the making, at bay while keeping the present-day momentum rolling. The result is that you frantically turn the pages while desperate for more information and to piece together the puzzle. Your heart beats an extraordinary amount as you wait to see how the story concludes, and you accurately predict very little. I was certainly taken by surprise.

This structure could have so easily been confusing, but Williams kept a neat order; furthermore, she excelled at keeping the details in place and revealing new ones at exactly the right moment. A plot with this much magnitude could also easily have been the shining spot of the novel, but no.

This book is really the gift that keeps on giving.

The winningest part of this extraordinary novel goes to Iris and Ruth themselves and Williams’ characterization of them. I would have enjoyed this story without great characters. Fortunately, Williams wrote two memorable ones that I won’t soon forget, especially Ruth whose pizzazz, ambition, and spark resemble City of Girls‘ Vivian Morris — one of my all-time favorite characters. Ruth has such an indomitable spirit that poor characterization would have been a disservice. Luckily for us, as readers, we can so clearly identify who Ruth is in everything she says, does, and feels.

And I love that the main relationship in this story is that of two sisters. Yes, some love and lust are involved. But at the end of the day, it’s about Ruth and Iris, their trust and distrust in each other, and how, at the end of the day, their love for one another outweighs everything else — even a 12-year feud.

You may be thinking by now that I’m slightly obsessive and speaking a bit too grand about this book. No. There’s no such thing as too many superlatives when it comes to Our Woman in Moscow. I haven’t felt this strongly about a novel in awhile, which is why I need someone to read it, so I can re-discuss it in detail. Books like this one prove what a valuable and enjoyable genre historical fiction is, and I’d love to see a critic refute that point. It just ain’t possible.

“Nobody likes a shrew, do they? A woman who insists on having her way. Oh, a man in my position would be hailed a great leader! Firm, decisive, independent, uncompromising. But a woman who stands up for herself and those she loves — well that’s plain mean and selfish, isn’t it?”

Our Woman in Moscow

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