It is 1982, and Laura Reid along with group of young American college students are spending the winter semester in Leningrad, studying at the Leningrad State University. At this time the Soviet Union was a totalitarian country under Communist rule. Citizens had few rights within the country; they couldn't own property, industry and agriculture was collectivized and highly inefficent leading to shortages in many basic everyday items including food. The people of the Soviet Union were not free to travel anywhere outside their country. Few visitors were allowed in and those that were, were closely monitored.
Laura shares a room in Dormitory Number Six with fellow student, Karen Morrison and their Soviet chaperone, Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards!!) who is required to report any misconduct to the Soviet authorities. The group have American professor-chaperones, Dr. Stein and her husband, Dr. Durant who are guiding them through a five month term. There are strict rules for the American students; they have an eleven o'clock curfew, cannot skip classes or be late and cannot associate with certain people.
A mere two weeks into her stay, Laura has a run-in with gypsies on the Builders' Bridge. In what seems a chance meeting she is helped by Alexei Mikhailovich Nikolayev, a young dissident artist. Aloysha's charm catches Laura off guard and she allows him to give her his phone number. He warns her to make sure she walks a fair distance from her dormitory to avoid bugged phones. They begin to meet secretly since it illegal for Russians to fraternize with Americans.
Initially they meet at Dom Knigi, the House of Books. The two manage to circumvent all the rules repeatedly with Laura sneaking Aloysha into a special store for foreigners only - the Berioska while missing classes or arriving at her dorm past curfew. Inevitably, Laura falls hard for Aloysha and he seemingly for her. But their relationship is complicated by the presence of Olga, the wife of Aloysha's friend, Roma, who seems to have a romantic interest in Aloysha.
Despite this, and the terrible danger to both herself and more importantly, Aloysha, Laura is unable to resist. Aloysha is risking everything for a chance at a new life. When that danger materializes, all Aloysha and Laura's plans become what might have been.
The Boy On The Bridge is a simply written love story set against the backdrop of the Soviet Union in the early 1980's. that conveys to readers, a realistic picture of what life was like for the average Soviet citizen. There are descriptions of the line-ups outside of shops for food, the fascination with everything Western, rampant alcoholism, the overarching corruption in society, the cynicism and resignation of people in general, and the widespread (but justified) paranoia in a country where a person's every move is monitored. The breakdown in Russian society is mirrored by the banal concrete buildings, the dilapidated houses with peeling paint and the dirty streets. However, Standiford also includes many references to old Russia in an attempt to achieve some kind of balance; the fascinating but violent historical figures such as Ivan the Terrible, descriptions of the beautiful museums and subway in Moscow, and the incredible architecture of St. Petersburg (Leningrad).
Sometimes the setting of the novel is an allegory for what is happening between Laura and Aloysha. For example, there are two intriguing descriptions of the romantic Summer Garden at the Palace of Peter the Great. The first occurs at the beginning of the novel when Laura has just met Aloysha and the statues in the Garden are covered with boxes for the winter. They are a mystery to her as is Aloysha. The second time happens in the spring when the Garden is "an oasis of budding life" and the marble people are unboxed and Laura and Aloysha attempt to avoid their inevitable parting. Now revealed, Laura can see each of the statues, just as she too is beginning to understand Aloysha, his motives and the culture he lives in.
Aloysha enlightens Laura on how people have learned to live in Soviet society where few help others and everyone is too frightened to stand up against the corruption. Aloysha tells Laura that everyone learns to pretend.
"The hospitals are dirty, the stores are empty, the people are poor while the Party takes everything. The hypocrisy, the secrecy, the lies, the bullshit...I saw it all very clearly. I couldn't pretend to be a part of the system anymore. But that's what's required of you here -- you don't have to believe the lies, but you must pretend you do. That's all that matters: the pretending. That's what keeps the whole system going."Laura is a realistic character, her voice reflecting her naivety about the Russian people and the motives behind what they say and do in culture very different from her own. At first she takes everything she sees at face value. When she sees a man walking his dog near the phone booth she is certain he is just that.But later on in the novel, she considers the possibility that he might be more than what he appears to be, that he might actually be watching her. She eventually comes to realize that she doesn't know the rules and all the subtleties for living in Aloysha's world. Laura also comes to realize the same about their relationship - that Aloysha might being viewing their love very differently than she is.
Overall, The Boy On The Bridge will appeal to those who enjoy a bitter-sweet romance set against recent historical events. This novel definitely gives young readers a sense of the time period it is set in. Little wonder since author, Natalie Standiford majored in Russian Language and Literature and studied a semester in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
The Boy On The Bridge by Natalie Standiford
New York: Scholastic Press 2013