Look at that cover. What do you think? I think attractive, elegant, nothing new but appealing nevertheless. Then I look again and I see what I don't see. Look right over there on the luggage tag. The Free World by David Bezmozgis author of Natasha. Ever hear of Natasha? No? Maybe because that's not the whole title. The title of Natasha is really, according to the publisher, Natasha and Other Stories.
Stories. A four letter word in book retail that means No Sales. So why not obscure the fact that Bermozgis and his publisher once committed sales suicide by bringing the world a short story collection.Don't blame me. Hell, I don't make the rules I just run the register. The mod and hip looking British edition of The Free World left off any reference to Natasha at all. Good call I say.
The Free World is the destination for the Krasnansky family from Riga, U.S.S.R. Not from Riga, Republic of Latvia as it is today, but from Riga 1978. Three generations of Russian Jews: Father, Mother, two sons, two daughters-in-law and two grandsons have gotten sponsorship from cousin Shura in Chicago and are just about to arrive in Italy when the novel begins. Once in Italy a serious hiccup in the endless paperwork and luggage juggling that the Krasnansky family has been enduring endangers the immigration. They are forced to regroup, rearrange their plans and hope for the best.
Author David Bezmozgis tells us about life in the old country and 99% of the journey to Italy in flashback. He fills us in on the characters' backstory piecemeal in between their experiences in the limbo life of waiting, waiting, waiting---sorry I was channeling Casablanca there for a second---to get an OK and move on to the new life. The characterizations are the great strength of The Free World and it's weakness. Not all of the Krasnanskys are fully fleshed out people but they all have believable stories and flaws. The characters that do come together: Father Samuil, Son Alec and his wife Polina are excellent creations. You route for them, you are irritated by them. The difficulty is that they do not come together as interestingly when interacting with one and other as they do when Bezmozgis writes about them as individuals.
There is the huddled masses yearning to be free angle in The Free World but this 1978 not 1878. The Krasnanskys are worldly. They aren't leaving behind poverty and ignorance for streets paved with gold nor do they seem to be searching for religious freedom. Brezmozgis brings an ironic but gentle humor to this contemporary immigration. Communism has been left behind but crazy is along for the ride. This may be the promise of a new life through eyes opened by television and the game show lure of a shiny new car but it is also with strong family feeling. They have committed to doing this together. That loyalty to one another, that bond of kinship is the theme that carries throughout the novel.
David Bezmozgis writes with an easy authority that amazed me. The Free World is filled with those kinds of moments provide insight into human behavior through both sad honestly and giggles. I was engaged, involved and half way through the book before I had time to bemoan that it was going to end too soon.