Book Review: US/Russian (Romance) Relations(hip)

This review (by CoCo) was originally published (5/31/16) as a guest review on Smart Bitches Trashy Books. 

Lunges, pivots, turns, spins, Salchows, loops, flips, Lutz jumps, axel jumps, singles, doubles, and triples. B00PQJI7QE.01.LZZZZZZZIt’s okay if these terms don’t mean a whole hell of a lot to you. I’d consider myself a casual fan of ice skating. When I see a skating competition on television, I definitely watch. Plus, watching The Cutting Edge throughout the ‘90s was a formative romantic and figure skating touch-point—as it was for the earlier SBTB reviewer, and our author, Elizabeth Harmon, who specifically pitched her story as “The Cutting Edge with a Russian twist.” Though, to be fair to both the film and Harmon’s original story, I found her novel to be significantly more interesting and nuanced than that tagline might suggest. cutting edge 3The story has ice skating and romance, sure, but also a nuanced one-night-stand, mistaken identity, cultural differences, class issues, celebrity culture, fame, deceased parents, suicide, politics, cheating, scoring scandals, publicity stunt romance, jail time, and, supporting all of those minor and not-so-minor hiccups on the road to Happily Ever After, a sweet and slowly developed love story.

In Pairing Off—the first of three in the Red Hot Russians series—Elizabeth Harmon manages to convincingly pair off Carrie, a pseudo-Southern-belle and disgraced competitive figure skater, with Anton, a working-class Russian and more experienced figure skater. After her first draft, Harmon jokingly recalled, the Southern-meets-Russian elements felt like “Steel Magnolias visit the USSR,” but as she refined the broad strokes and further developed characters, some of that cutesy charm and opaque veneer was removed. In the final product, I certainly didn’t feel like Carrie’s hometown culture defined her in any stereotypical way, which was nice (though I do recall one reference to Tara in Gone with the Wind that seemed to stand out and not mesh with the story). Mostly, though, it was simply part of her backstory and her family history was more important to her early character development than anything else. Perhaps even more important than their divergent national backgrounds. The real contrast for our potentially star-crossed couple comes from the fact that Carrie is a more private, independent, and distrustful person when compared with Anton, who is more open and grounded by a large family and support system, but has his own baggage. Luckily, those aspects serve to complement one another and help the two characters grow into themselves, and into love.

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Olympic figure skating is the impetus for the story, and Harmon does a nice job of creating a plausible but elite universe. Harmon skated as a child, gave it up as a young teenager, and returned to beginner lessons as an adult a few years ago, all of which I believe lends the book’s details credence while remaining accessible and interesting to a variety of readers. Like with many competitive sports, dance, and performance focused narratives—from Bring It On to The Cutting Edge to Remember the Titans—there are the standard challenges, benchmarks, setbacks, and successes. I always love it when a sports or competition story hits that point in the narrative arc where the main characters decide to change things up at the last minute, either due to some external complication (i.e. stolen routine!) or some sort of internal development or realization that the “standard” way is not authentic to the characters in question (i.e. this isn’t who we are and it’s not fun anymore!). ice skating 6I could easily visualize, and even hear, the more upbeat and exciting training montages once Carrie and Anton start mixing things up on the ice, trying new music and costumes, even bringing in new coaching help (this is different from the standard early training montage in which we see our protagonists fail, and try, and fail, and get a little better). If I could see it so clearly, Harmon did a pretty good job setting the words in motion for her audience.

In a story like this, I don’t think we can ignore the elephant in the room: those pesky and tense U.S.-Russian dynamics. (Yes, this is a post-Cold War world, but problems and tensions persist, as I hope most of us know.) When we consider how authors recreate the atmosphere in a Regency romance, for instance, the author’s knowledge presumably is achieved through reading and research rather than personal experience. Perhaps unfairly, I find myself occasionally using a more stringent evaluation when an author sets a story in a contemporary setting, particularly given the fact that there are such real-life complications in American and Russian relations. Mostly, I was worried that clunky references (or, conversely, the potentially glaring evasions) to realistic political and cultural dynamics would take me out of the enjoyment of the romance. This is a problem I rarely have to concern myself with in most romances, whether it is because of the subgenre or the established conventions (I just don’t think these sorts of conventions exist with contemporary Russian-American romances that are not mob-related and/or romantic suspense?). That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by both the appreciation Harmon showed for Russian culture and also the difficulties and blowback an American who skates for the Russians might experience.

Try to imagine the tightrope: Carrie begins as a somewhat-disgraced figure skater hailing from the South whose politician-father is running for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats. Though it’s not pervasive, some of the obstacles to the happy ending concern this issue as Carrie, her father, and the press navigate these international waters. Anton and Carrie aren’t blind to their own cultural and national blindspots, though they’re treated lightly and generally dismissed with an “at least we’re not politicians” rationale. The most cutting dialogue we hear comes from a local Georgian (the state, not the country) radio personality who is attacking Carrie’s father through her:

Seems little Commie Ann—excuse me, Carrie Ann—after she got caught cheatin’ and disqualified here, up and moved to Moz-cow, became a Russian citizen and is now going to compete for them in the Winter Games… Folks, I am just disgusted. Les Parker calls himself a patriot. But what kind of patriot lets his daughter renounce her country and move to Russia so she can prance around on ice skates with some communist fairy-boy? That don’t sound like a patriot to me… But what the hell do I know? I’m just a good ol’ boy.

While this is perhaps the most vitriolic prose we have to endure, again, I commend the balance in writing what is primarily a light-hearted romance that nonetheless acknowledges some of the imagined and plausible political complications of such a (somewhat) tangled love story.

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While Harmon hasn’t visited Russia herself, she’s explained in an interview that one of her favorite things about this writing process was becoming acquainted with Russia and its people; along with research, she got in touch with a Moscow-based blogger and his wife, who together helped her strike the right tone for Moscow and flesh out Anton’s character (including speech patterns). Harmon reflected that she, together with the Moscow couple she corresponded with, sought to counter some of the less than favorable impressions Americans often have of Russia. As Carrie explores Moscow and Russia as a tourist, and then a resident, she brings us with her. We also enjoy Anton’s native perspective, which I imagine Harmon’s reading, research, and friends helped her recreate. From the police presence and need for carrying papers in public, to the urban legend or joke that if an American tourist stands too close to Lenin’s tomb at night, he might just come out and grab him or her, to the descriptions of the local cuisine (beyond stereotypes), these details felt authentic. Russia becomes a critical supporting character in the story. Despite what I consider the importance of Russia itself as the story develops, ultimately it is the theme of finding “home” with loved ones, rather than within any particular borders, that is the enduring theme. Thus, the epilogue ends on a tried-but-true “home is where the heart is” note, with a pregnant Carrie and Anton sharing this exchange:

She rolled her eyes. “I look like a house.”

“Not house. Home. The only one my heart will ever need.”

I, too, might have rolled my eyes a little bit, like Carrie, but I also smiled to myself afterward. I don’t always want my romances this sweet, but this was an enjoyable and immersive Olympic skating romp with likable characters and lots of fun details. It combined familiar plot elements in a different setting and managed to avoid many sensational and stereotypical landmines in what I imagine could have been tough international terrain.

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