In Act Three of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," aristocratic landowner Lyubov Ranevskaya despairs over losing not only her estate but her past, her memories tied to a place where her family has lived for generations. She envies the perpetual student Trofimov's ability to boldly face the unknown future, but wonders whether his courage might be misplaced, if he simply hasn't "had time to suffer through any of [his] problems," if perhaps "life is still hidden from [his] young eyes."
The scene could act as an apt epigraph for "The Orchard," Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry's spectacular debut novel loosely based on Chekhov's last play. Instead of highlighting the societal changes that would precipitate the Russian Revolution of 1917, however, Gorcheva-Newberry tackles the colossal upheaval that would topple the Soviet Union in 1991. That era brought both political realignment, as the flaws of socialism gave way to the greed of capitalism, and generational confrontation, as older Russians saw all they knew slowly vanish and the young saw all they were taught revealed as lies.
While clearly related events in Soviet history are essential to "The Orchard," the novel is above all an intensely evocative and gorgeously written coming-of-age story centered around Anya Raneva and her best friend, Milka Putova, members of "Generation Perestroika," who grew up during the waning years of the USSR. Even if they had known that their nation was falling apart, it would have changed little, Anya says, because they were raised to believe themselves powerless, to accept both their government and "the order of things as we did the ineluctable succession of seasons."
We see them progress from playing with dolls to sharing a first kiss to sneaking cigarettes in the school bathroom. In early 1984, at age 15, they meet Aleksey Lopatin and Petya Trifonov, "who were as different as sky and earth." Lopatin's parents are party members and consequently well off. Trifonov's single mom is a member of the intelligentsia and has little. Lopatin loves to live; Trifonov lives to learn.
Ringing in 1985 together, Anya reflects on the four friends' youthful freedom "from any responsibility other than being teenagers in love with life and all it had to offer at the moment: music, liquor, food, cigarettes, sex, and friendship — the greatest gift we would know."
Gorcheva-Newberry suffuses her story with Russian color, like the Easter-time "sunny-yellow dome-shaped cakes" called kuliches, and customs, like sniffing black bread after drinking a shot of cheap vodka. And she has a genuine gift for metaphor. Anya and Milka lie "motionless like sunbaked frogs" after swimming in a river. Later, Anya awakens to a "sunless, frostbitten dawn, the air so white, as though sewn from snowflakes."
Near the end, the story hews closest to Chekhov's play, but Lyubov's cautionary words to Trofimov shroud the entirety of the novel's shattering and incisive second act after Gorbachev comes to power in March 1985. Life indeed holds many sorrows for young eyes, sorrows that will fill readers' eyes with tears and wonder at Gorcheva-Newberry's magnificent tale.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
By: Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 384 pages, $28.