The covers of these stunning novels capture their essence in three words, found right underneath the title: A love story. Impossible, some would say, that love could survive such atrocity, pain, and death. But it does. The love story of Tatiana and Alexander is one of the greatest ever told, in my humble opinion.
Paullina Simons’s tales do not fit one specific genre any more than Diana Gabaldon’s do. They teeter between history and romance. I’d be lying if I said that Simons had me at the first page of the trilogy; in fact she had me at the first page of book three, The Summer Garden. It wasn’t until I was halfway through it that I realized I was reading the last book of a trilogy. So of course I had to see how Alexander and Tatiana came to be together.
The Bronze Horseman tells the tale of a young couple brought together and torn apart by war. They endure starvation, the bombardment, secrets, lies, Leningrad and they survive certain death.
It opens in June of 1941, the day before Hitler invades Russia. Tatiana and Alexander meet and grow close as friends. Friends is all the can be because Alexander is dating her sister, Dasha. Regardless of their growing feelings she refuses to break her only sister’s heart.
“Go on with your life,” Tatiana said. “You’re a man.” She lowered her eyes. “Go on with Dasha. She is right for you. She is a woman and I’m—”
“Blind!” Alexander exclaimed.
Tatiana stood on Ulitsa Govorova, desolately failing in the battle of her heart. “Oh, Alexander,” she said, “what do you want from me…”
“Everything!” he fiercely whispered.
It does take everything for them to finally come together. One by one, her family succumbs to the ravages of war. When they are about to have it all and escape to the United States, the two are once again torn apart by war and sacrifice.
The second novel, Tatiana and Alexander, resumes right where The Bronze Horseman left off. It weaves the present and the past with loving intricacy. Though they are living apart, you get to relive their story all over again. The memories of their love keep Alexander alive, against all odds. They keep Tatiana going to raise their son, no matter how she longs never to wake up.
Alexander recalls a time when he begged Tatiana to leave him behind and flee to safety. Of course, she would not leave her Alexander.
“Can’t you see that I’m breaking?”
“Ah,” she says. “You’re still in one piece then.”
When Tatiana gets concrete evidence that Alexander is alive in Russia, in a POW camp, she flees America and her son to find her husband and bring him to their new home. Their bittersweet reunion, three long years after their separation, made the breath catch in my chest, tears well with joy, and my heart pounded with every word.
Tatiana finds her beloved bloodied, scarred all over his entire body, malnourished, and knocking on death’s door. She washes him, cleans, him, and feeds him. A few stolen kisses, tears, sobs and caresses later she tells him of her plan to get them out, together this time. And this is the hardest battle they will face yet.
Their love story concludes in The Summer Garden, a novel spanning 60 years. War-torn life in Russia did not break them. The utterly deafening void of a three-year separation did not break them. Life, in peaceful post World War II America, the Cold War, jobs, secrets, friends, enemies, jealousy, love, hate, and an all-consuming passion that never fades nearly end them, time and time again. When they believe life cannot be harder than death, starvation, and the bitter cold Russian winters they do not realize that marriage in itself is one of the hardest obstacles to endure.
The Summer Garden opens in 1946 on Deer Isle…
Once upon a time, in Stonington, Maine, before sunset, at the end of a hot war and the beginning of a cold one, a young woman dressed in white, outwardly calm but with trembling hands, sat on a bench by the harbor, eating ice cream.
Ahh, Tania. You and your benches and ice cream. How long ago does it seem that Alexander found her in Leningrad doing the same? That moment he stood in the sun, staring at the girl in the white dress and red sandals, when his heart became hers. There, in his officer’s uniform, when he decided to cross the street and relinquished his entire life to her.
Only four years. And she sits now, waiting for him to return from a hard day’s work of lobster fishing. Tatiana sits and tries not to think of their past, live only in the present. But the wounds are still far too fresh not to think, about the war, the death, and those years without her beloved Shura. As Tatiana glances down at her son, Anthony, the spitting image of his father, she knows it was worth leaving him to rescue his father from near death in that Russian prison.
As much as she tries to forget, the sight of Alexander’s body is an everyday reminder of what they’d lost. His body bears the scars of war, of POW camps, and beating after beating. He bears a tattoo of the hammer and sickle as well as a swastika, compliments of The Red Army. His punishment for treason. He also bears a number running up his forearm, compliments of a German POW camp.
Scars, welts, and black dye keep the past very much in the present. Tatiana can not help but cry for his pain every time she sees them. They do not even argue, like days of old. Something Tatiana would love. Fighting means being present in the marriage, not some ghost shuffling through it. It’s not easy in one-room apartments to have privacy, to speak of all that plagues them. The passion once shared so many moons ago in Lazarevo is impossible here.
Alexander can only seem to speak to her in the dead of night. When he makes love to her she cries, when he tells her he loves her, she cries. In guarded whispers he tries to get her to understand how he feels for her and that it has never changed since first laying eyes upon her on a Leningrad Street.
I love you.
And Tatiana cries.
You know that don’t you? Alexander whispers. I love you. I’m blind for you, wild for you. I’m sick with you. I told you that our first night together when I asked you to marry me, I’m telling you now. Everything that’s happened to us, everything is because I crossed the street for you. I worship you. You know that through and through. They way I hold you, the way I touch you, my hands on you, God, me inside you, all the things I can’t say during daylight, Tatiana, Tania, Tatiasha, babe, do you feel me? Why are you crying?
Now that is what I call a whisper.
He whispers, she cries, she comes to him in unconditional surrender and cries and cries. Deliverance does not come cheap, not to her, not to him, but it does profoundly come at the price of night.
Years pass and the overcome many obstacles familiar to marriage; overworked husbands, wives looking for their place in the world once kids are off to school, possible infidelity, money troubles, and the inability to have more children. Some fifteen years later, Tatiana tries to explain to a teenage Anthony the meaning of what love is and why the fighting sometimes seems impossible.
“When I was fourteen, I also knew so little. But believe me, one day you’ll understand.” She swallowed. “The power you have over someone who loves you,” said Tatiana, “is greater that any other power you’ll ever have.”
There are finally more children. Then grandchildren. Anthony enters the Army and goes off to Vietnam. When he shows up missing, Alexander leaves to find him, just as Tania did once, for him. The parallels to their present and past is so poignantly drawn I couldn’t stop the tears from welling and with bated breath they fell onto the pages.
Paullina Simons says in an interview that she knows Tatiana and Alexander better than anyone else in the world. After reading all three novels, I still want to know more about them. The final words on the final page are of Alexander on a bench, many, many years later and far removed from the Leningrad street where it all started.
He is thinking of sailboats in distant oceans, the desert from the dimmest childhood, the ghost of fortune, the girl on the bench. When he saw her, her saw something new. He saw it because he wanted to see it, he wanted to change his life. He stepped off the curb and out of the deadfall.
“We’ll meet again in Lvov, my love and I…” Tatiana hums, eating her ice cream, in our Leningrad, in jasmine June, near Fontanka, the Neva, the Summer Garden, where we are forever young.”