I was so taken in by the beginning of David Bezmozgis’ “The Free World,” I missed my “el” stop. Later the same day I stood on another “el” platform, gobbling up this story of immigration, and nearly missed my train home. There it stood, doors open. When had it pulled into the station? How is it I hadn’t heard its “Brown Line to Ravenswood” call? I seemed to be hermetically sealed within a book.
A Jewish family leaves the Soviet Union in 1978, bound for the United States, Canada, maybe Israel. Alec and Polina are newlyweds. Karl and Rosa have two rambunctious young boys. The men’s parents are Samuel and Emma. None would leave Russia without the other; now in Rome, none will leave without Samuel, whose age and health holds up their application. The family’s extended time in Rome frames this novel’s story.
Its first page entrances: Alec should be helping his family with luggage but he’s distracted by two girls, American tourists. He ” traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans. …They sat on their backpacks and leaned casually against each other. Their faces were lovely and vacant. They seemed beyond train schedules and obligations.”
Oh, to be one of those girls!
Instead, Alec plays the dutiful son, the faithful husband, the good brother. He and Polina find work, and a shared apartment of their own.
Stuck in Rome, what drives this story forward? Will playboy Alec be true to Polina? Will Rosa get her way, and steer the family to Israel? Will roommate Llyova reach the United States?
Bezmozgis takes us backwards, to the horrific pogroms of Samuel’s youth, Samuel’s valor and despair serving in the Red Army, his embrace of Communism. We also relive Polina’s decision to leave her husband, her family and her homeland for Alec.
Rich stuff. Unfortunately, Bezmozgis brings his story to a close with a teenager who causes the family violence, death and breakups. Deux ex machina!
Still, I held this book close for more than a week. I ached for its characters. I savored its prose. This is David Bezmozgis’ first novel. I look forward to more.