Cape of Storms by Nina Berberova (thoughts)
One of the aspects of Russian lit I find a bit frustrating is that so many of the older authors are men. Don’t get me wrong, I love men, but I also love a woman’s perspective…something that’s sadly lacking from the classic Russian fiction canon (poetry is another story of course). So while I can’t remember where exactly I first heard about Nina Berberova, an early twentieth-century Russian author, I was so excited to put her in my wish list! I read a trio of her novellas (The Ladies of St. Petersburg) last year and very much enjoyed them. So when a library catalogue search randomly came up with this book, Cape of Storms, I couldn’t resist putting it on hold. And I’m so glad I did: I loved this book from start to finish and highly, highly recommend it.
Having read The Brothers Karamazov earlier this year, I was a bit delighted to find that the book is about three sisters, each of whom have a father but not a mother in common. But if you’re not a Dostoevsky fan, don’t worry: Berberova’s style is definitely different (more concise, for one thing: it’s only two hundred fifty pages long). In fact, she reminded me of Elizabeth Bowen, another early twentieth-century author who focuses on coming-of-age stories: very focused on her characters’ interior lives, with a slightly ‘flowery’ prose style. But back to the novel! As I said, it centers on three sisters, ranging in age from early thirties to late teens, who are all trying to figure out their ideal lives in their own ways. Geographically, the sisters’ situation mirrors Berberova’s own: while they were born in Russia, thanks to the Civil War they end up as exiles in Paris. The double-life of the expatriate definitely adds to the novel’s flavour, giving it a thin veil of nostalgia that I just loved. And each of the sisters is so distinct: they take turns at the ‘center’ of the story, and I was never confused as to which sister I was following. Berberova wonderfully delineated the emotions and thought processes of each, which is quite difficult to pull off! I also really cared about each: I was invested in the various plotlines and saw a little bit of myself the various characters.
All of this is to say, Cape of Storms is a smart, touching novel that manages to look at timeless themes while also capturing a very specific time and place. It’s a bit historical; Berberova wrote it post-WWII but it’s set in the 1930s, which also contributes to the bittersweet feel. I loved it, and I imagine anyone who enjoys early twentieth century literature in general, with its interior focus, will also love it. Or anyone who’s attracted to girl/women-focused coming-of-age stories!
Suggested Companion Reads
- To the North by Elizabeth Bowen (Since I mentioned her!)
- Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty (I think these two have a similar ‘feel’ to them and both focus on girls on the cusp of womanhood, despite the very different settings!)
- Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes (In case this makes you curious about Russian culture in general!)