TW// rape, sexual abusive, violence, controlling partners, domestic abuse, suicide mention
See my original Twitter thread for live reactions/extended thoughts: https://twitter.com/whittynovels/status/896685333504544769
The first 500 pages of this book set up to be a 3-4 star book. The setting is excruciatingly real and well-done, provided that I’m not an expert on Russian WWII history and can’t vouch for the historical accuracy. However, the atmosphere of the book and the starvation and sickness that the characters endured was so tangible that it was almost unbearable to read at certain points. It’s so gruesome, and I think it works great as a book about war rather than a book about romance.
Which brings me to how this book is such a trashfire.
Alexander is the worst. The. Worst. An obscenely controlling rapist framed as a love interest.
It snuck up on me at first. Throughout the first 500 pages of this book, I would sometimes think to myself, “Eh, he’s kinda horrible for doing that, but it was the 1940s, so what can I say.” There were little things that I let slide. The first time they meet, he follows her onto a bus, and when she refuses to get off at her stop, he continues to stay on the bus, watching her. When he comes over to dine with her family, he always insists that she be the one to serve him tea. He would always tell her what to do, and threaten her if she were to disobey his orders. He dated her sister yet got mad when she gave attention to any other boys other than him. All this, and he is 22 while she’s merely 17. It was disturbing, but not entirely unheard of for young women at that time. I figured that once he and Tatiana’s sister broke up, an actually healthy relationship would form.
I was the opposite of correct.
Alexander turned into a tyrant. He controlled every aspect of their relationship. He decided where she went, who she visited, how long they would be there. He controlled who she talked to, and banned her from being with others because he was supposed to be the most important person in her life. The first time they have sex—mind you, Tatiana’s first time <i>ever</i>—the entire scene is loaded with dialogue in which Tatiana tells him to stop and wait because she’s anxious and hesitant, whereas he is insistent and insensitive. Her every “Wait!” is met with “I can’t!” and her every “No, stop” is met with, “No, tell me you love me.” This scene alone contributes so much to the toxic atmosphere of rape culture, and what’s even more disgusting is that Tatiana is deprived of having any sort of substantial inner monologue that would indicate that these unwanted advances are wrong.
What’s worse than this entire first scene being ridden with dubious consent and coerciveness is that Alexander has this ridiculous fetish with Tatiana’s youth and purity. For <b>SEVERAL PAGES</b> he pesters her about “has anyone seen you naked?” and “has anyone touched you?” and “did you save yourself for me?” and “have you been with a man before at all?” It’s incredibly creepy and objectifying, especially when considering the age gap between them. Also, the too-tight, girly dress that Tatiana wears when they meet becomes a symbol of Alexander’s obsession with her youth. He literally carries the dress around with him throughout the book to remind him of her innocent days when they first met. There’s such a power imbalance and Alexander strengthened his leverage over her by always insisting that he was more mature than her, and she was so young and had so much to learn.
But what occurs after their wedding night is truly chilling. Alexander completely clutches the reins of Tatiana’s life. They have sex several times per day at Alexander’s discretion, and always under his terms. Tatiana continues to cook for him and do his laundry, and if she slips up in doing any of this (say, not being able to catch a fish for dinner), then Alexander reprimands her heartily (“I told you that you should have gotten up at 5 to fish!”). He tells her repeatedly that he loves her and she’s everything to him, but he constricts her individuality and autonomy in every possible fashion. At this point, it extends beyond the stereotype of a man conforming to patriarchal behavior; he has crushed her entire personhood so that she will be what she wants him to be— which at the end of the day boils down to someone he can stick his dick into and be served hot meals by.
By far, one of the worst scenes in this book is when Alexander and her are discussing the fact that Alexander will have to go back to the war from his furlough (the period of time in which he travels over 1000 kilometers to see/visit/marry/sexually assault her in the safer town she’s found haven in). He ends up finding a backpack she had assembled that had some winter clothing items and other basic commodities inside, and confronts her about them in a very aggressive (read: normal) manner. When she declares that she wants to go back to Leningrad (their war-ridden hometown) with him, he becomes so angry that he rips the fish that she’s cleaning from her hands, GRIPS her arms, yells at her, then retreats to the woods to go be alone. He was one step away from physically swinging her over his knee and spanking her like some goddamn awful vintage advertisement. However, that’s not the worst of this conversation. Eventually Alexander returns and continues to rage, after which he declares (and this is a direct quote):
“I married you so I could fuck you anytime I felt like it! . . . Anytime, Tania! What else do you think a soldier on furlough could possibly want? And if I hadn’t married you, all of Lazarevo (the town they’re in) would now be calling you my whore!”
At this point, I was completely finished with this book. It revolted me. Tatiana was understandably insulted and retreated, but then it gets worse. Tatiana is lying in bed after that whole ordeal, still somewhat sniffling and getting over crying while literally in the fetal position, when Alexander crawls into bed beside her. Harmless. When she doesn’t turn to face him or acknowledge him, however, he then proceeds to unravel the sheets from around her and stick his dick inside of her. I can’t make this up. Non-consensual penetration. And Tatiana just remains silent, so he takes it as a green light. I was so revolted that I was seeing red.
In what fucked up world is this the way to resolve a conflict, even in a historical fiction book where controlling husband are normal? This book was written in 2000. So apparently it’s an acceptable apology to just sidle up in bed behind your wife and slide into her. No hard feelings! If she doesn’t say no, it means yes! After coming he does finally apologize, but he’s practically just raped her and expects to be absolved of all hard feelings. Understandably, Tatiana is quiet and unresponsive, and Alexander demands she forgive him. Literally. He says “Turn to me and tell me you forgive me.” and she does. And when that isn’t enough, he says, “Kiss me. I want to feel your lips forgive me.” And she does. but then he says, “You have not forgiven me. Again.” and she kisses him again. As if salt wasn’t already thrown in the wound, a few pages later, it states, “Hours went by. In the deepest night, Alexander made love to her again. ‘Go on, Tatiana,’ he whispered, ‘spread your legs for me like I love.’” And as he’s on top of her (side note: she is crying throughout the duration of this scene), he is asking her, “Will you stay here? Are you my good girl? Are you my lovely girl?” and saying “Swear you’ll stay here and wait for me. Promise me you’ll be a good wife and wait for your husband.” I’m so disgusted that he is rewarded with sex even when he assaults her and gains forgiveness from it. Please rest assured that at that point, I began rooting for him to die in the war.
It’s sickening the way this author (WHO. IS. A. WOMAN.) writes a woman to be submissive to her husband even after she has been mistreated and assaulted. It’s insulting to me, as a reader, the way that Tatiana gives in to Alexander consistently and with fervor, even after she has been used and betrayed and hurt. After this point, NOTHING was redeemable about this book. I was so blinded by my disgust for Alexander and the way that Tatiana is never given the opportunity to walk away from him or have her own way, regardless of what Alexander wants for her. I was reading a story about a woman trapped in an unhealthy relationship, and a man who manipulated her into thinking that it was the life she wanted.
I just don’t understand how this main character, who is so constantly mistreated, can have the instant turnaround of “I love you, I miss you, never leave me, I’m nothing without you, you own me” (yeah, one of the actual lines in this book is Tatiana thinking the actual sentence, “He owns me”). Alexander is rewarded with her love and affection even after he commits very violent and disturbing acts to her, in both his action and dialogue. And the fact that this book has such a high rating confirms that it has been overlooked by many of the readers, and subsequently, these actions are internalized and normalized in the readers’ minds. The readers, of which most must be female, might I add, since this is categorized as romance. The words “A love story” are printed right beneath the title on the book’s cover. So women, young and mature alike, are gathering the message from this book that it’s okay for men to treat women this way, even if it was 80 years ago. Even if these practices were common at that time, it’s the 20th century. It might’ve been less common for a woman to be empowered in their relationships in 1942, but it’s abhorrent that we have to read sexist bullshit just because it conforms to what a relationship would have looked like at that time. What a great way to solidify me never reading a historical fiction novel ever again!! Many, many, many authors have written about women in 1940s and earlier who are autonomous and confident and sex positive and many authors have written about men in those same times that respect women. A resistance to write historical romance like this indicates an author who has a complete disregard to the safety and well-being of women who read this and interpret the book’s themes as normal, or worse, desirable.
It’s so hard for me to even continue this review because at that point, I had 200 pages left. We hadn’t even nearly reached the end. But after this point, I told myself I wasn’t here for the romance; I was here to wish and hope and cross my fingers that she would have at least ONE awakening in which she realizes that Alexander treats her like absolute shit. Just ONE instance in the text that the author— or Tatiana— indicates that she is being treated unfairly and disgustingly. That she is an object, a plaything, a puppet for Alexander.
Once Alexander leaves for Leningrad to return to the army (Tatiana has obeyed him and decided to stay in her town), she goes into this New Moon-esque state in which she moves through her days with robotic lethargy, only living to thrust herself into work and distractions. She is made to seem like she’s worthless, hollow, bored, nothing without her husband. She was such a lively girl at the beginning of this book without Alexander! Where is the carefree Tatiana who decided to skip buying war provisions so that she could buy ice cream instead? The passionate Tatiana who played games on the roof with her friends? She’s like an unspeaking corpse after he leaves, even though she has so many friends. Why is a book written in the 21st century perpetuating the idea that a woman is not whole without a man??
Later, when she returns to Leningrad against Alexander’s wishes because she thinks he might be in trouble, she thinks to herself, “Alexander will be so angry when he finds out I’m here,” immediately followed by, “she didn’t care if he killed her.” WHAT THE FUCK???? She didn’t care if he KILLED her? She’s literally ready to DIE under the furious hand of her husband finding out that she disobeyed him? That is so beyond fucked up that I have no further comment.
I hardly have the words to type this next section. When Alexander (who is stationed several kilometers outside of Leningrad) finds out that Tatiana came back, he breaks a chair with his bare hands (hands that were injured by a second degree burn a month ago, mind you), then begs for a few days off to go to Leningrad. The scene where it describes him leaving to go find her literally reads like the prologue to a homicide. I was filled with absolute dread and loathing, as well as pity for Tatiana.
As I should have been. She finds him outside her apartment waiting for her, and he’s furious, of course. Tatiana is able to coax him into a better mood by, you guessed it, sex. However, the next morning, the yelling that ensues literally shook me to the core. I was terrified for this woman because this man was filled with such unspent rage that I really thought he was going to crush her skull. Alexander starts packing her things so that she can leave again, so that he can send her somewhere safer, which she protests, and the conversation gets heated. Then, Alexander tells her this:
He threatens to hit her. In a romance book between two adults who for the last 150 pages have spent a month fucking each other and exclaiming their love for one another, the male partner just THREATENED. TO. HIT. HIS. WIFE. for telling him that she didn’t want to leave him. Furthermore, he says, “I will take you there (to a safer town) if I have to carry you myself, kicking and screaming.” I mean, we haven’t had the greatest track record with consent here, but this is really just an escalation of the real violence that occurs in this scene.
And I’m warning you, this scene is dark. This scene is intense. This scene made me cry, this scene caused my blood to run cold, this scene made me feel such pity for a character that up to this point I remained pretty indifferent about. After Tatiana says that she would come back if he dragged her away, he throws a backpack full of supplies at her head. Then punches the wall beside her head. He begins yelling. At this point, it describes Tatiana as trembling, and rightfully so. This has crossed the line of being “borderline” abusive. This is threatening. This is terrorizing. This is coercion and a fear tactic for her to do what he wants.
Then he yells at her some more:
“For fuck’s sake . . . What will it take for you to listen to me, just once, just fucking once, what will it take for you to do as I say?”
This line alone is disgusting, implying that in order for her to be a good wife— and someone exempt from being beaten (or nearly so)—she must submit to his every will and follow his orders. This is something he did even before they were together!! From the VERY beginning of their relationship, he was threatening and coercing her into doing things his way, otherwise she would risk consequences like being shamed by her family, or him threatening not to return to her. But then, he grabs her by the arms and pins her to the wall. A physical act of aggression, intended to terrorize her into submitting. Several lines later, it describes Tatiana as being “afraid to look at him.” Is this romance?? Having your husband yell at you to listen to him while he pins you to a wall??? So aggressively that the wife is afraid to LOOK at him in fear of angering him further?? This is absolute, abusive garbage.
But it doesn’t end there. Tatiana’s roommate hears the yelling and knocks on the door to see if she’s okay. Alexander also screams at the roommate to shut up and go away, and this interaction only seems to propel his violence further. After he slams the door on the roommate, Tatiana backs away from him with her hands up—the saddest image of all, really. She is retreating from him in fear while he is in a manic, furious state, and seeing his own wife, supposedly a woman he loves, back away from him in this fearful way doesn’t even phase him. It then describes him as “unstoppable” and “crazed” as he SHOVES her on the couch. She tries to cover her face, but he rips her hands away and shouts at her not to do that, shaking her as he grabs her by the cheeks.
At this point, I don’t need to interject comments for you to get the mental image that this is extremely wrong behavior. A kindergartener would be able to pick up on how inexcusable this is for a husband to do to a wife, not even mentioning that it is extremely undeserved. They were having a conversation!! All of this is because Tatiana said she wants to be in the same city as him! A city in which she is provided enough food (triple what her rations were when she escaped the city a year ago), she has enough money to survive in, where she has a job, and is decreasing in air raids and Nazi terrorism.
Tatiana yells at him to stop hurting her while shoving his hands away, but he only grabs her harder. She continues to say stop, and then “You’re hurting me.” You’d think by now a husband who respects his wife would pull away and apologize for his behavior, vowing to never lay an ill-intentioned hand on her again. But no. It says that she just gently lays her hands on top of his, and although his grip softens, it seems to be because she has stopped fighting him and is instead pleading with him. It’s around this time that the book LITERALLY states, “she could hardly breathe” as she tries to reason with him. He’s on top of her on the couch, crushing her, crushing her face between his hands, suffocating her.
Finally, he breaks. But only because she broke first. And instead of apologizing for his outburst, all he does is beg her not to stay. And what does she do? She apologizes to HIM. SHE is the one who says “I’m sorry I made you angry.” Not the other way around. Not “I’m sorry I scared you” or “I’m sorry I yelled” or “I’m sorry I punched the wall” or “I’m sorry I threw a backpack at your face” or “I’m sorry I terrorized your neighbor and slammed the door on them” or “I’m sorry I pinned you against the wall” or “I’m sorry I shoved you” or “I’m sorry I was suffocating you” or “I’m sorry I overreacted.” He said none of these things. There was no indication in the text that this outburst, that this scene is unhealthy or in any way a wrong thing for a husband to do to a wife. And more than anything I’d read before in this book, it concerned me. My heart broke during this scene for Tatiana, and even moreso in the pages after this scene when after the situation has deescalated and Tatiana has once again submitted to Alexander’s will, they have sex. Many times.
And it’s again in this “love making” scene that we read Tatiana employ the phrase that she wants Alexander to kill her. It is by far one of the most twisted, disgusting love stories I’ve ever witnessed.
(TW: SUICIDE) Later on they are arguing about whether or not to escape to America, and she threatens to kill herself if he doesn’t leave, and he threatens to leave and never come back if she doesn’t stop talking. Every single piece of dialogue of theirs, at this point, is just outrageous and toxic. They’re now threatening to leave each other—or KILL THEMSELVES—in order to manipulate the other to do what they want?? Even in rough times such as living in the Soviet Union, this is so, so extreme and concerning.
I sped through the last 100 pages of this book just to be done with it. And I didn’t miss a lot. He tries to guilt her into getting an abortion, and when that doesn’t work, he fakes his own death in order for his wife and unborn child to be able to escape the Soviet Union. A great sacrifice, I guess, but pretty shitty and mentally scarring.
The bottom line is that this book normalizes and promotes these unhealthy interactions between a husband and a wife. Never once did Simons denounce any of Alexander’s actions as abusive, violent, or wrong; instead, Tatiana is constantly apologizing for upsetting his husband. It’s sold as a love story, but the main character is only given this love when she’s behaving like a perfect doll for her husband, following his commands, serving him food, and bending over for him any time he feels the urge to pound her.
Alexander faced no consequences for his actions in this book. This violence and this abuse is sold as angst and romance. And I loathed every goddamn second of it.