by Adrienne Celt
“I watched him like a child watches an older child, slyly, and from the corner of my eye. Always hoping for him to approve of me in some way, since he was my life’s first coup, the first thing truly wanted and procured.”
We know from the first page of this disquieting novel that Leo Orlov, a Russian émigré and successful author living in the USA, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. We are in no doubt this incident took place because we see excerpts from a collection of papers devoted to the matter, assembled by the fictional Donne School Alumnae Society of Goslings some this 53 years after the event. We also discover from the archival material that the book’s protagonist, Zoe Andropov, who “died under hotly debated circumstances” in the same year as Leo, kept a diary of the circumstances leading up to his demise.
The story is very loosely based on the complex marriage of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, but of course, the real author died of natural causes in 1977 after 52 years of marriage, so we must suspend disbelief in this matter, as in many others.
Andropov arrives in America as a refugee from the Soviet Union. She has been orphaned and is sent to an elite boarding school in New Jersey where her fellow pupils treat her with disdain. Her prospects are uncertain, so after graduation she takes a position at the school as a gardener, which is when she meets the charismatic Leo who’s started teaching there, and a little later, his enigmatic and seductive wife, Vera. He and Andropov become lovers and thereafter the plot is driven by a lustful, complicated love triangle.
Adrienne Celt, whose debut novel The Daughters won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for Fiction and NPR Best Book of the Year, was born in Seattle but now lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. According to a recent interview with her in The Amazon Book Review, she’s had “a life-long love affair with Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, and a fascination with his marriage.” She said, “the idea for Invitation to a Bonfire came to [her] almost fully formed”, but freely admits she did not want to limit her characters to “historical truths”.
I wouldn’t class this idiosyncratic book as an historical novel because it veers just a little too far from well-established facts. I would, however, describe it as an ingenious literary mystery. There are one or two small weaknesses in the narrative but overall, it’s an insightful and engaging read.
“I knew he belonged to Vera when he came to me, came for me, came into my hands as if dropped there by a parachute. And it’s true, his unavailability only made me hold him tighter.”
Many thanks to Raven Books (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC) for providing an advance review copy of this title.