Truth be known, there is nothing as good as a good almond croissant.
But I digress.
I have been staring at a novel called “Ninochka”, by Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym, for several months now. I am not exactly sure why, but you know how it is. You see a book, you judge it by its cover, and you know that you want to read it, although you don’t know the first thing about it.
The book previously belonged to Don. I don’t know who Don is, of course, or why the book wound up at Second Story books, but Boym had inscribed the book to him on March 18, 2003. Although the condition of the book seemed perfect, I think that Don did read it, or at least he read part of it. And he had a pencil with him, with which he only noted one thing. And it was on page 9, so perhaps he went no farther.
Nina Bel’skaya, prior to her being murdered, ate an almond croissant. It was 1939. Don circled the word “almond” and wrote in the margin: “anachronism”.
I have spent a little time (emphasis on the word ‘little’) trying to decide who is the better judge of the history of croissants, Don or Svetlana. While I may be wrong, I vote with Svetlana. Let’s look at what we know. Croissants have been around since at least the 17th century. Almonds longer than that. I rest my case.
I enjoyed the book, although I wanted to tell Svetlana to relax a bit as she went along. Everything seemed a bit tight to me.
The story is simple and complex at the same time. Tanya Stern, Leningrad born New York historian, young unmarried woman, is researching the mysterious death of Nina Bel’skaya fifty years earlier. Nina was a Russian emigrant, living in Paris, trying to make sense of the world of exile, and her role in it. She was poor. She was an intellectual. She was appealing to some, while she turned others away because of her independence of mind. She met a young American. They went to see Greta Garbo in Lubitsch’s “Ninochka”, and she was murdered in her apartment the next day.
The story of the book is the story of Nina, the story of Tanya, the story of Tanya’s grandmother Ninel (that’s Lenin backwards, a name she took to prove her solidarity to the cause), and yes the story of Lubitsch and Ninochka. Narrative, letters, interviews, emails. All with the underpinning of the twentieth century experience of Russian emigrants, including Communists, Pan-Slavists and Jews. And agents, and double agents, of course.
All of these chains come together as the story proceeds, perhaps a bit too coincidentally. But at least, when the mysterious has been solved (or apparently so), and you end the book, you don’t walk around wondering about the plot. Just about the croissants.