A couple of years ago, I was in a book store and came across A Bend in the Stars, the debut novel by Rachel Barenbaum. It captured my interest, and although I didn’t buy it right away, it stayed in my mental list. I finally got the audiobook version of it recently, and now felt like the right time to dive in. I loved it so much that I’m now determined to add a physical copy of the book to my personal library.
|A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum|
|Audiobook Narrators||Thérèse Plummer and Eduardo Ballerini|
|Setting||Russia; Lithuania; Latvia; Bulgaria; Ukraine|
|Length of Book||464 pages; 12 hours|
|Format I Read||Audiobook|
|Original Publication Date||May 14, 2019|
This is at once an epic love story and a heart-pounding journey across WWI-era Russia, about an ambitious young doctor and her scientist brother in a race against Einstein to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.
In Russia, in the summer of 1914, as war with Germany looms and the Czar’s army tightens its grip on the local Jewish community, Miri Abramov and her brilliant physicist brother, Vanya, are facing an impossible decision. Since their parents drowned fleeing to America, Miri and Vanya have been raised by their babushka, a famous matchmaker who has taught them to protect themselves at all costs: to fight, to kill if necessary, and always to have an escape plan. Can they bear to leave the homeland that has given them so much?
Before they have time to make their choice, war is declared and Vanya goes missing, along with Miri’s fiancé. Miri braves the firing squad to go looking for them both. As the eclipse that will change history darkens skies across Russia, not only the safety of Miri’s own family but the future of science itself hangs in the balance.
Although I mostly avoid books about WWI or WWII, every now and then one will stand out, offering a unique perspective or character and piquing my interest anyway. A Bend in the Stars is one such book, about two intelligent people on a quest of their own in spite of the brewing first world war.
It’s 1914 when we meet our protagonists, the Abramovs. They live in the Jewish community of Kovno, Russia (modern-day Kaunas in Lithuania). Along with their grandmother, there are two adult siblings: Miri is a surgeon – the first woman in her hospital to achieve this position. She’s engaged to another surgeon, Yuri. Miri’s brother, Vanya, is a math genius who works at the local university and is in a race against Einstein to figure out the math that proves relativity. Indeed, he’s on a mission to see the upcoming solar eclipse; doing so will not only allow him to win this science race (as long as he gets his math right in time, that is…), it will also allow the family passage to America – a much safer place for Jews than Europe currently is. But with war breaking out and Jews forced to fight, Vanya and Yuri have little choice but to enlist, torpedoing Vanya’s plans to see the eclipse and get his family safely out of Russia. They develop a risky plan that will see Vanya and Yuri head up to Riga (in present-day Latvia), where they’ll meet up with an American contact and secure their escape.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan, and new dangers keep emerging – both for Vanya and Yuri and for the two women back home in Kovno. Vanya is hunted by a powerful man, and he’s also forced to follow the trail of the missing American. He and his soon-to-be brother-in-law are also deserters, adding extra risk. With the help of a rough but clever sailor, Dima, Vanya and Yuri make their way south to Kiev (in what is now Ukraine).
Meanwhile, Miri and her grandmother end up helping (and being helped by) a stranger named Sasha. Eventually, this trio splits up, sending the grandmother up to St. Petersberg, where she’ll wait for her grandchildren. Miri and Sasha, however, flee south, hoping to find Vanya and Yuri in Kiev.
As you can see from my longer-than-average synopsis, there is a lot going on in A Bend in the Stars. The novel is broken up into short, quick chapters, giving the story a captive pace. I also enjoy the dual perspectives as each chapter focuses on either Miri or Vanya. Although it’s common to prefer one POV or one timeline more than the other in books like this, I actually found myself to be equally enthralled by both characters’ journeys. Both Vanya and Miri face nerve-wracking, emotionally wrenching arcs.
Another aspect that I particularly enjoyed is the cross-country adventure A Bend in the Stars turns into. The characters journey across Russia, between what are now Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Sometimes they walk for days across farmland and alongside rivers, living off of the food they can find or catch in the wilderness. Sometimes they risk hopping a train, but with Jews hunted across Russia – and with these characters in particular being wanted by dangerous foes – it’s not an option they often take.
Miri and Vanya’s professions both play a big role throughout the novel. Of course, their entire journey is built around Vanya’s quest to get pictures of the solar eclipse, solve his math, and secure safe passage across the Atlantic. In him, we can feel the growing stress of not quite getting his numbers right, even as the days are rapidly counting down. Is he going to be able to unravel the equation in time? Is he truly as close as he says he is, or is he losing his mind in a futile game?
His sister, too, must rely on her abilities as a surgeon. This is how Miri first meets Sasha, and it is eventually what keeps the two of them secure while they search for her missing brother and fiancé.
A Bend in the Stars also features a trope I normally hate: a love triangle. Either you hate the characters for it, or you actually like them all and know that it can only end badly. Here, I felt the latter sentiment. I like Miri: she’s smart, strong, resilient. Her fiancé Yuri is also great: protective, reliable, if guarded. The wildcard is Sasha, but I found him to be equally likable: brave, gentle, giving. I could see Miri and Sasha growing close early on, and it was clear that she hated herself for her slowly developing feelings for him. And although I do hate cheating and love triangles, I found that I liked both Sasha and Yuri equally. But I was just waiting for it all to implode between the three of them. The question was just when and how it would happen. In the end, though, I was satisfied with the outcome, if still a bit heartbroken over the whole thing.
After spending hundreds of pages with these characters over the course of several tough months, the book ends in a sort of whirlwind. A lot of ground is covered over the last few chapters, and numerous loose ends are tied up in a sort of epilogue. I actually would have been happy to read all of that as a sequel, but no matter.
All in all, I truly enjoyed A Bend in the Stars. It’s an emotional, action-packed drama, and I love how it highlights intelligent characters and a unique, science-based, and celestial focus. Further shoutout to the voice actors who narrated the audiobook, Thérèse Plummer and Eduardo Ballerini. Both did an excellent job reading Miri and Vanya’s chapters, and they kept the audiobook engaging from beginning to end.
A Bend in the Stars is a beautiful and sweeping novel filled with eclipses, math and science, and deep relationships between family members and people in love. It offers a special look at WWI that I haven’t read in any other books, which I quite appreciated. Though I listened to the audiobook, I think I’ll need to collect the physical book now, too. I’ll definitely be reading more from Rachel Barenbaum in the future.
About the Author
RACHEL’S SECOND NOVEL ATOMIC ANNA IS FORTHCOMING IN APRIL 2022. Her debut, A BEND IN THE STARS, was named a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It is also a Boston Globe Bestseller.
Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer whose work has appeared in the LA Review of Books, the Tel Aviv Review of Books, LitHub, and DeadDarlings. She is an Honorary Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University and is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. She is also the founder of Debut Spotlight and the Debut Editor at A Mighty Blaze. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor. She has degrees from Harvard in Business and Literature and Philosophy. She lives in Brookline, MA. Rachel is represented by Eve Attermann at WME.