For me what made this a great book instead of just a good book was the scene where Fyodorov professes his love for Roxane. Up until then, I was reading along and thinking, ah yes, a book about Stockholm Syndrome, and then, yes, yes, this is how people would act if thrown together by circumstance. But when I read this chapter, I woke up and started paying attention.
It seems to me the Fyodorov scene covers much of what we’ve been chatting about on this thread concerning the human condition: art, language, politics, ideology, world-view, love, and hate. But more than that, I thought it brought the reader into the story – made the reader part of the story.
Initially Gen is a little put out at being torn away from Carmen so that he can translate for Fyodorov. Then, perhaps because he has just come from Carmen and sees Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa together, it begins to dawn on him that there is something more than friendship between the two of them. As Fyodorov enters to face Roxane he is so nervous that he looks sick to her. She thinks he looks like Christopf right before he died – and not all that long after Christopf had professed his love for Roxane. Then Fyodorov decides his planned speech is inadequate and he must start from the beginning, so he tells a beautiful little story from his childhood about an Art Book, his Grandmother, the war, and growing up in Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg under Communism. Then he says he loves her.
And so Fyodorov sits back relieved to have said his peace, and presumably satisfied with his performance. Roxane and Gen sit there a moment, stunned. And that is where, I think, the reader enters the novel. I did anyway. Patchett had drawn me into the novel before I knew what was going on. You see, I’m cringing in my seat, waiting for the awkward rejection by Roxane. I know it will happen, it has to – she’s a snob and he’s a boor, right? Well, Roxane buys a little time by making an empathetic observation about Fyodorov’s story and then as she starts to comment on his declaration of love, he cuts her off and tells her it his gift to her and he requires nothing in return:
And I had to admit he was right. I was thinking like an American. And I had to admit that I should reconsider some of my cultural assumptions and prejudices.…But it is never about who has given what. That is not the way to think of gifts. This is not business we are conducting. Would I be pleased if you were to say you loved me as well? That what you wanted was to come to Russia and live with the Secretary of Commerce, attend state dinners, drink your coffee in my bed? A beautiful thought, surely, but my wife would not be pleased. When you think of love you think as an American. You must think like a Russian. It is a more expansive view.