In 1931, apprehensive about her return to the Soviet Union, Marina Tsvetayeva wrote from Paris to a friend, “Here I am unnecessary. There I am impossible.” She did return in 1939. Betrayed by her husband, ignored by her friends, caught up in the Stalinist nightmare, she was dead within two years.
Four decades later, Artyom (Art) Laukhin, a Soviet poet famous worldwide but no longer able to publish in his own country, made the opposite – westward – journey. He sent ahead of him the journal his father had kept between the mid nineteen-thirties and the late nineteen-fifties. A writer of popular spy stories much enjoyed by Stalin himself, his father had been in the middle of the Soviet literary life and had kept a secret record of it.
The novel opens in 1985, in Toronto, where the poet has been working toward transforming his father’s notebooks into a publishable literary journal. The first volume, already past many deadlines, is now only a few months away from printing. Laukhin teaches, reads the proofs, works on a long introduction, gives interviews. He cannot avoid the insular world of émigré artists, with its backstabbing, pettiness, envy, failures, push and pull of memories. He worries that his days as a poet are over. At a soiree he meets and falls in love with the very attractive Audrey Millay, in Toronto from London (UK) for – her words – “a sabbatical from married life”. Audrey works for the irascible owner of an art gallery in Yorkville, the elderly Jean Lezzard, son of White Russian émigrés. Forty-nine years old, Laukhin pursues Audrey with the resolve of one who believes it’s the last time he’ll feel such emotions. Audrey gently deflects Laukhin’s advances. She seems more interested in a shady aspect of Lezzard’s commerce and, together with Laukhin, suspects his gallery is an outlet for KGB-confiscated Soviet art. She’s also aware of Laukhin’s reputation as a philanderer, and cannot get over the fact that he has left his wife, pregnant with his child, in Moscow, an act he refuses to explain.
Laukhin is revising and linking all Tsvetayeva-related entries in his father’s journal into a narration about the poetess. (It was Laukhin’s agent who thought of publishing such bundled excerpts as a way of keeping up the interest of the public in the long-awaited journal.) The excerpts, interspersed between the chapters of the latter-day story, depict the blows Tsevtayeva receives on her return to the Soviet Union: her gradual realization that her husband has been a Soviet agent, her distress at the arrest and disappearance of her daughter and, later, of her husband, the grind of day-to-day life and her inability to find suitable work or a roof over her head, the disinterest of her friends (among whom Boris Pasternak), her failure to create although back among her people, her terrible end two years later in Yelabuga, a small faraway town on the Kama River. They also portray the guilt Pasternak feels after her death, and the remorseful journey he undertakes to Yelabuga years later.
The two narrative strands – Laukhin’s and Tsevtayeva’s – come together toward the end of the novel, with the past encroaching onto Laukhin's life.