Bellagrand – Can it be as beautiful and as grand as The Bronze Horseman?

The Bronze Horseman by Russian born, American author, Paullina Simons is my favourite teenage love story; the trilogy, one of my favourite series of all times. And so it was in late 2012 when a prequel was released telling how Alexander Barrington’s parents met and fell in love in Boston in the early 20th century the book could have been called Great Expectations, such was the antipation for this novel.

I carved out a few days to read Children of Liberty and then afterwards I was in a total slump, not because I had a book hang-over but because I had a book blah. Despite the wonderful prose, I could not feel the love between the main characters. I could not understand the attraction. I could not put fingers to keyboard to write about it. So I picked up other books, continued with my own writing, while I waited and hoped that the next one would move me like her other breathtaking books.

I’m pleased to say Bellagrand has – but not for the reasons you might expect. And even though this book did not make me fall in love with Gina and Harry, even though it did not break my heart over them it certainly made me FEEL – which for me is paramount – and what I felt most was the heartbreak of a lone sister. Esther.

It was interesting how that came about. The story is largely told from Gina’s point of view, with only the briefest snippets from Alexander’s as bookends and just a sliver of Esther’s. But that was all it took. In a café in Casuarina, heavy tears coursed down my cheeks as I read her last agonising conversation with her nephew, Alexander.

If you have read The Bronze Horseman you will understand everything. If you have not, then I’m not sure how much you will enjoy this book. Earlier this week I spoke to a friend, also a TBH fan, who was half way through Bellagrand. Her words: ‘Man it’s depressing. Does it get any better? I know they have to go through all this stuff to get to Russia but sheesh!’

That’s it in a nushell. If you haven’t read Bellagrand and want to, then leave this page now. Shoo! Go! <g>

If you have read Bellagrand, please tell me what you thought. I’d love to hear and chat. Here’s my in-depth, spoiler-filled summation.

Bellagrand copy

There was many a time when I was reading Bellagrand when I wanted it to be about a different Gina from Sicily and a different Barrington boy from Boston – not one destined for the depressing, dire mire that was Russia in the 1930s. The reason for this: Gina’s husband, Alexander’s father, Harry, was such a selfish, deceitful character that I wanted to punch his lights out on so many occasions and throw my book at the wall. One of the major downsides – I have since discovered – to having an eReader.

In the opening chapters when we discover that Gina has supported Harry for seven years – seven years! – while they lived in her mother’s meagre home in Lawrence, while he fluffed about ideologising and doing God knows what, I found myself struggling to relate to this woman and this man. I could not relate to how that situation had not worn her down into a resentful, loveless woman who had little, if any, respect for her husband. I could not understand how Harry did not feel the tiniest bit emasculated by their situation, emasculated enough to get off his posterior so his wife did not have to work so tirelessly at three jobs.

The story started to get interesting when Gina falls pregnant for the first time, only to miscarry her baby due to being caught in an industrial riot. At which point Harry finallly finds his caring, protective muscle in a backhanded sort of way – telling her:  “I told you to stay away.”

There are lots of political, union and socialist discussions as well as current event updates throughout the novel that I waded through at times. I understand why they were there. I understand what those people were fighting for and how their struggle has meant better working conditions for almost everyone I know. [Yet sadly, is a struggle still taking place right now in many countries like Cambodia.] I understand how these were core to Harry’s beliefs and dreams for a new world order but I found them a bit dragging. That said, as an Australian who has not studied 20th century American history, the story did send me googling people, places and events and I think how these figures, such as Big Bill Haywood and Anna LoPizzo, were woven into the story was commendable. I just would have preferred less.

Respite comes when Harry is serving one of his longer jail terms and his best friend, Ben, returns from a decade in Panama where he has been building the ground-breaking (pun intended) canal. And in that disheartened world that Gina is living, she finds a new Eden, and Ben’s unrequited feelings for this once-spirited Sicilian beauty become no longer unrequited. Oh, the vicarious thrill of their Christmas lights and their iceskating lake and and their sleepless Saturday nights. Finally, someone who really cherishes her! What I wouldn’t have given to be inside Ben’s head and to read what this must have been like to pine after a woman for 15 years before finally consummating that relationship. Ever since the early days of Children of Liberty when we first met Ben I’ve found him to be the more spirited, interesting character with visionary ideas of his own that were life affirming and exotic.

However in the limbo of their bliss Harry is released from prison and Gina decides to return to him.

He gave up everything to marry me,” she tells Ben.

“Maybe he didn’t value what he had,” Ben said cooly, “Did you ever think of that? Does he value you?” 

Exactly. Ben saw it all.

Harry loved his ideals more than he loved Gina – despite his words arguing to the contrary. And argue they did, not about Harry’s beliefs as much as his irresponsibility, until one brief pause when they make love and their flailing union renders Gina pregnant for the seventh time, as the Spanish Flu arrives and does its best to assail her and half the people around her.

Being ill, unable to work, with Harry back in jail, and anxious of losing her baby, Gina does what Harry has been unable to do. She drags herself out of her sickbed and trains to Barrington to beg for help, for Harry’s baby. Miraculously, the Barringtons do not turn her out. Hermann even admires her. And, despite everything, Esther finds a common cause to side with Gina: new life, a child that she could never bear herself. And, bizarrely, there is clemency for Harry in exchange for house detention in a grand house in Florida bequeathed to him by his mother, which was bequeathed to her by none other than a flamboyant discarding lover.

Bellagrand, their mansion by the sea.

Bellagrand view

 

One of the hallmark’s of Paullina’s writing that I adore is her lyrical alliteration. We saw it in The Bronze Horseman: Luga, Ladoga, Leningrad, Lazarevo. And in this one too: Belagrand, Belpasso, Boston, Ben.

Bellagrand: their short-lived, sedate version of the roaring twenties; their overdue Lazarevo. And as a curtain raiser, Harry’s lovesick letter to Gina penned before they even married. Now we are finally reading how he truly felt for her way back when.

“I want nothing in my life as much as you…You are the muse to my every insipid utterance.”

I get why Harry loved her. I just wanted to hear him tell us why. He loved her because she was unique, like Susan Sarandon walking down the street. She was his angel who kept house, cooked divine meals, provided for them and was a sex goddess at night. Yet, did he love her enough?

What did she see in him? I kept on searching the pages for the answers. I rationalised that she loved him because he was a passionate and original thinker, highly intelligent, her partner in repartee. She loved his sacrifice, what he gave up for her, she loved that he loved her and, it would appear, that he was a good lover, he certainly made her hit the higher octaves. And I think she loved him because he still had a father, like she had once had a father whom she adored, and what she longed for was the perfect family of three generations of men together.

Certainly Hermann’s coming to Bellagrand was monumental, the happiest of times – aside from the infuriating conversations with Harry, like the widget one where Harry could not concede a single valid opposing point.

But too soon afterwards Hermann dies in Boston and Harry does not attend the funeral. Gina goes as their sole representative. And during the wake, which Ben attends with his new Panamanian wife, Esther at long last perceives Gina and Ben’s secret affair. That night, Esther accuses her sister-in-law of thrice ruining any chance of happiness she could have had with Ben, despite her affections being unreturned. Esther understood exactly what had happened each time, but she did not understand Gina’s motivations, falsely accusing her of being manipulative and plunderous, all the while Gina sat stone-faced, unable to defend herself without incriminating herself.

Gina returns south, to the magnificent comfortable, carefree life she enjoys with her husband and son, except with Harry’s release from house arrest, he wants out. “I want to go back to Boston – to be closer to Esther – she’s the only family I’ve got!”

True, true true, but lies, lies lies. And what about Gina’s brother, Salvo, who had moved across country for them?

Gina from Bellagrand painting

I hated Harry’s deceipt, his lies by omission. Back in Boston I wanted Harry to be trampled in some union riot. I wanted Ben’s innocent wife to be caught up in some Panamanian landslide so Gina and Ben could be united and Alexander would still have a ‘father’ to look up to, a builder and engineer extraordinaire.

Because from thereon their life in Boston starts to dissipate and fracture as Harry’s appalling deceptions slowly surface. It really goes down the sewer and there are a few minor details in this section that don’t entirely synch with The Bronze Horseman series – their citizenship situation being the case in point which really is the penultimate punch in the gut. 

“She was too proud to let him see the heartbreak in her humbled spine.”

As we near the novel’s end Gina makes the irreversible decision to stick with Harry and go to Russia with him and for me it was like the end of the movie Breaking the Waves. In this film, Bess, a young, simple woman (played by a young Emily Watson), returns to a masochistic, torturous sex house – all to please her husband. She ventures into her own death – as does Gina.

At this point I wanted to slap Gina. I wanted to lock Harry far far away on that island in Russia – the one they kept on talking about.

But what did Gina do? She went to bed with him in the middle of the day – sorry? – what?  – that noise you are hearing is the needle scratching across the record.

“Unfed, unquenched, unresolved, Harry and Gina undressed and in bed tried to feed and quench and resolve themselves. They always had that to fall back on, the white rumpled sheets of their mutual ardor.”

I could not get my head round that. Not the day time sex, but the anytime sex. I don’t know how she lay down with him ever again.

Esther had said earlier: “Your charms didn’t work on my brother.”  But his obviously worked on her, and still I could not see it…was it just his whispering to her in Italian? Did she put up with all his crap for that?!

Bellagrand is Gina’s story… We never get inside Harry’s head enough to love him. In The Bronze Horseman we were inside Alexander’s head at various points and those were powerful – Shura washing the blood off Tatiana at Luga, his arrival in Lazarevo, his chats with Dimitri. And then there was The Bridge to Holy Cross. In this book there are no sections that I recall from Harry’s point of view and I think perhaps this was a deliberate move so we were always closer to Gina, always on her side.

For me the most powerful scenes in the book were Esther’s: her venting after her father’s funeral; her plea to Harry and Gina not to leave America, begging for Gina to stay behind with Alexander. Breathtaking!

“Gina I’ve reconsidered all my previous positions. Imagine what a shifting of the sands this is for me. Please forget everything hurtful or hostile I’ve ever said to you, and forgive me. But please – don’t do this. Your son is your ladder to the stars. He deserves better than this.”

(Your son is your ladder to the stars = my favourite line of the entire book!)

Her silent plea to her brother:

You are the only family I have left. You, your wife, my beloved boy. Once you leave, I will have nothing. You’re going to a dreadful place, yes, but your also leaving me and that feels so wrong. How can you not understand that? Do I have to even say it? She didn’t. She couldn’t.

And her final conversation with Alexander in the park across the road:

“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the destruction that wasteth by noonday, a thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near thee.”

Heartbreaking!  At least we know he memorised it like she asked him to. Bittersweet. I would have liked to have seen more of  just Alexander and Esther.

Even though the last few chapters build to an absorbing climax Bellagrand is not an uplifting story and, I admit, I like a happy ending, or at least an ending that has some degree of implied hope and promise. And I also like my antagonists to redeem themselves in some way.

So although I did not love this book – I did love a lot of the secondary characters and Gina too for most of the time. I hated her agreeing to go to Russia. Yet without that, there would be no Bronze Horseman. Such a bind. Ultimately, I think Bellagrand made me love the TBH series and Alexander even more, because of his mother’s sacrifice. I’m glad he got to live the American dream, because for his rudderless mother it was tragically too short.