I Must Betray You

In this stunning novel, Ruta Sepetys shines a light on an oft-overlooked period of history.

Book Review: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know I’m a huge Ruta Sepetys fan. I knew my library would purchase this book, but I still had to sit on my hands to keep from buying it on release day. As soon as my library had it available, I snapped it up.

Description

Romania, 1989. Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu keeps his dreams and thoughts hidden in a secret notebook he hides beneath the floorboards in his family’s tiny, State-owned apartment. In Nicolae Ceaușescu’s tyrannical communist dictatorship, Romanians aren’t free to dream, and such a notebook is a death sentence, if discovered.

Amidst the growing isolation and fear, the secret police offer Cristian two choices: become an informer and gain much-needed medicine for his sick grandfather, or face the consequences of his crime—possessing foreign currency. Cristian carves out a third option: use his position to undermine the most evil dictator in Eastern Europe.

Cristian risks everything to expose his country’s torment to the world, but he’s not the only informer in Romania. He’s not even the only informer in his own family.

Characters

Cristian describes himself as sarcastic and sharp, but in the totalitarian environment he lives in, that sarcasm rarely leaves his mouth. It hides on the pages of his notebook and in the depths of his thoughts. I wouldn’t label it sarcasm so much as poignant truths. His distaste for the government’s strictures creates tension with his need to protect his family—and the pretty girl in a neighboring building.

The other characters encompass a wide variety of reactions to tyranny—rebels, cowards, black market entrepreneurs, and the defeated, who live with no spark left in their eyes.

Plot

The plot moves at a heart-racing pace, following Cristian as he simultaneously informs on the American diplomat’s son while trying to communicate with the diplomat himself. The more he uncovers the truth, however, the more danger he is in. When revolution finally hits, Cristian learns the true cost of freedom.

Writing Style

 After reading a lot of sub-par free fantasy, this gem was a refreshing change. Ruta Sepetys is a master of mood and metaphor. The characters’ fear and tension come across in every word, and her prose is the perfect balance between efficient and artistic.

Conclusion

In this stunning novel, Ruta Sepetys shines a light on an oft-overlooked period of history. It’s easy to look at the tyrannies of the past and dismiss them as far-off tragedies, but these events happened relatively recently—a poignant reminder that evil has no expiration date. With varied and deeply human characters and a plot packed with intrigue, I Must Betray You is a must-read.


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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

Description (from Amazon)

“In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.”

Character

The Count, as he’s often referred to, is the kind of man everyone wants to befriend, but nobody would want to parent. One can tell that his youth was filled with mischief, and not even gray hair and joints that no longer like the Metropol stairs can dampen that spirit. What I liked most about him was that, though formerly an aristocrat, he treats everyone the same—from the barber to the seamstress to the hotel’s waiters, whose ranks he eventually joins. Seeing the Count adapt to his ever-changing circumstances was inspiring.

Plot

The plot meanders through many seemingly pointless side trips as the tumultuous events in the outside world impact the microcosm of the hotel. Eventually, the author tied these things together, giving them purpose within the broader storyline, but it demanded patience from the reader. I must confess that I almost didn’t finish. The plot is not well suited for the modern attention span, and the points it made were too subtle for a distracted reader.

Writing Style

The author’s writing style is really the only reason I kept reading. His prose is gorgeous, with creative descriptions that bring the story to life. The reader truly gets a feel for life in the Metropol.

Miscellaneous

Another strength of this book was the myriad of philosophical reflections sprinkled throughout the story. However, I was often too bogged down by the seemingly pointless side stories to appreciate them. Many of the more dramatic implications of the oppressive Russian regime were so subtly depicted that I nearly missed them.

Conclusion

If I were a generation older, I think I may have enjoyed this book more. As is, the subtle philosophy and meandering plot are not well suited to readers accustomed to the instant gratification offered by modern technology. This book is beautifully written, and it tells an inspiring story of resilience and resistance. I really want to love this book, but the best I can say is that I don’t regret finishing it, even if it took a bout of insomnia binge-reading to do it.


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