Ivan and Mischa by Michael Alenyikov explores the many forms of love between men. This includes gay men who love each other, certainly, but it also includes the love between fathers and sons, between brothers and between friends as well. Love takes many forms even when it does not cross between sexes.
Ivan and Mischa are fraternal twins, raised by their father after the death of their mother, they believe, in childbirth. Their father Louie takes them away from their Kiev birthplace as the Soviet Union is collapsing, choosing to raise them in New York City. As adults, Ivan is unable to make his dreams of wealth come true, but he finds satisfaction as a cab driver, when he has his bi-polar condition under control at least. Mischa lives with his much younger lover Smith; theirs is a difficult relationship that may not outlast the novel. The two brothers share the duty of caring for their aging father with their father’s devoted friend Leo.
Mr. Alenyikov tells his tale through a series of interconnected short stories much like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Olive Kitteridge. Of late, this has become such a common device, inter-linked short stories, that it may end up a sort of sub-genre unto itself. It would be possible to read any of the stories in Ivan and Mischa disconnect from the rest, but through them a fully formed narrative emerges. When we find out in one story that what Louie has told his sons in another is not true, we fell the emotional impact doubly because we know how the lie has affected Ivan and Mischa in ways Louie does not. While the same effect could certainly be achieved in a traditional, linear narrative form, the use of short stories allows for a book with several points of emotional impact.
Narratives typically have one big reveal in them at some point. A novel has one. A short story has one. A book of shorts stories has as many. Mr. Alenyikov uses this new form, the series of interconnected short stories, to deliver a series of emotional moments that would be difficult to do in a novel without reaching a point of critical overload.
It’s become my habit the last few years to keep only books that I think I’ll read again. The rest I give away. I’ll be keeping my copy of Ivan and Mischa. I’m confident that it will end up on my list of top ten favorite reads this year, and I’m sure that I will read it again.
This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. in 2011. I re-running it here today because last Sunday I met someone who turned out to be a close friend of the author. Over dinner we got to talking about books, I mentioned that I run a book blog, he mentioned a friend of his who used a blog tour to promote his book a few years ago. His friend was surprised to find out that there are so few book bloggers in the Bay Area. (I’m one of three that I know of, but there may be more.) His friend said a blogger in Vallejo had given his book a good review. That was me, I said.
Fortunately, I remembered enough of the the book to carry on a conversation about it. It’s a terrific collection. More people should read it. Turns out that it did sell out, which is darn good for a book of this sort and that the author is working on a novel.
I’m hoping to get a copy of his new book sometime soon. Meanwhile, go and read Ivan and Misha. It’s terrific.