Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Wednesday, January 30, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Lights All Night Long

Penguin Press: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Penguin Press: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Penguin Press: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Penguin Press: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lydia Fitzpatrick's remarkable debut novel is a coming-of-age narrative interwoven with a gripping mystery. Lights All Night Long follows 15-year-old Ilya as he achieves his long-held dream by arriving in America as an exchange student. What should be the culmination of years of hope and effort is overshadowed for Ilya, however, by recent events in his tiny Russian hometown. The narrative moves back and forth in time, between Ilya's awkward introduction to his host family in Louisiana and his childhood in Russia. As Ilya adapts to life in America, we gradually learn the source of the deep worries and regret that haunt him: back in Russia, his brother, Vladimir, has been imprisoned for a series of gruesome murders that Ilya is sure he did not commit.

Ilya's childhood in Russia is dominated by his relationship to his older brother. Vladimir is a complicated character, a charismatic troublemaker who encourages Ilya's budding English-language skills while resenting the attention and favored status that they earn his younger brother. Fitzpatrick skillfully re-creates the sense of hopelessness that fell over many towns after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarchs. The mood is so bleak that some older residents claim nostalgia for Communism despite the nearby mass graves. In this atmosphere, Vladimir comes into conflict with his family and gradually sinks into delinquency and drug addiction. Fitzpatrick heartbreakingly portrays Vladimir's descent through Ilya's eyes. Ilya is forced into a timeless, terrible role: watching a loved one slip away, helpless to save them.

In Louisiana, Ilya is welcomed by his relentlessly cheerful host family, the Masons. He finds himself overwhelmed by the consumerist abundance of America, fascinated yet repelled by how much Americans take for granted, their casual wastefulness. Fitzpatrick uses Ilya to present an outsider's view of American culture. Through his eyes, American life is saturated in wealth and excess. Even American religion seems super-sized: "Pastor Kyle's sermon was a mishmash of sound bites. He seemed more concerned with volume than with content. His voice was a power hose, blasting the congregation's brains."

Ilya is eventually drawn out of his shell by Sadie, the Masons' beautiful daughter, who has secrets of her own. Through Sadie, Ilya learns that he isn't the only one who feels out of place because of a traumatic past. Fitzpatrick shows herself just as capable at portraying the insecurities and false starts of teenage romance as she is at crafting an engrossing mystery.

The central mystery of the book is how Vladimir came to be blamed for the murders, and Fitzpatrick approaches it from multiple angles. In the present, Ilya digs into social media profiles and embarks on cross-country trips to prove Vladimir's innocence. In the past, we learn how Vladimir became increasingly alienated from Ilya and his family. Ilya sifts through his memories for clues, including tortured ones of the time Ilya spent with one of the young women not long before she was killed. The investigation into Vladimir's culpability doubles as an investigation into the breakdown of Ilya's relationship with his brother. Ilya is haunted by guilt, by the thought that he could have done more to keep his brother safe and close. Fitzpatrick leaves the question unnervingly open, forcing the reader to wonder whether anything might have altered Vladimir's trajectory.

One of the book's great pleasures is that, for all the pain of his past weighing Ilya down, he's forced to proceed with the ordinary business of being a teenager. Ilya's burgeoning crush on Sadie is as exciting as any 15-year-old's first love, while navigating high school is even more complicated given the cultural barriers. Ilya has to field ignorant questions and stereotyped assumptions about his life in Russia from teens and adults alike. He has to learn to let down his guard and trust people. And, with Sadie, he recognizes a kindred spirit: "...he realized why her room looked the way it did. Uninhabited. Like there was a suitcase just out of sight. Like she was ready for flight." In a deeply foreign place, Ilya eventually finds belonging.

Before Ilya leaves for America, Babushka tells him that she's glad his grandfather, who was in the gulag for seven years, is no longer with them. When Ilya asks why, she responds: "Because he wouldn't have let you go. America. Not in a million years. You suffer for a country, and you either find a way to love it or you go nuts." In some ways, this is analogous to the relationships between many of Fitzpatrick's characters, especially the one between Ilya and Vladimir. Vladimir is far from a model older brother. He's bitter, angry and heavy with poor decisions. And yet, his love for Ilya is fierce. For Ilya, part of unwrapping the mystery around Vladimir's imprisonment is discovering just how deep Vladimir's commitment to him remained even during his brother's darkest hours. Fitzpatrick shows that relationships can be as obscure and twisted as any murder mystery. Lights All Night Long is about the people you love despite everything, because you have to or you'll go nuts. --Hank Stephenson

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 352p., 9780525558736, April 2, 2019

Penguin Press: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lydia Fitzpatrick: One Foot in the Past, One in the Present

photo: Erin Scabuzzo

Lydia Fitzpatrick's work has appeared in the The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, One Story, Glimmer Train and elsewhere. She graduated from Princeton University and received an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Her debut novel, Lights All Night Long, coming from Penguin Press in April 2019, is the story of Ilya, a 15-year-old Russian exchange student whose arrival in Louisiana is shadowed by what he left behind in his tiny hometown. 

How did you come up with Ilya and his life in Russia? Do you have any personal connections to Russia?

My mother is a Russian historian who lived and studied in Russia during the Cold War, and when I was little, my family hosted two Russian students, Olga and Tatiana. They were young--Olga couldn't have been older than six--and both were completely brilliant. Olga was a piano prodigy, and her stay with us culminated in a duet that she performed with master cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at the Kennedy Center. I remember her playing standing up because otherwise her feet couldn't reach the pedals.

When I was older, my family went to Russia for a summer. This was in the mid-'90s, in the long, chaotic wake of perestroika. We had a driver, Aleksey, whose life savings had amounted to a pack of cigarettes after the "shock therapy" economic reforms. I'll never forget him telling us this as he weaved through Moscow's hellish traffic, looking back at us in the rearview mirror to see if we understood, puffing on a cigarette that I couldn't help but think was from that fateful pack.

Ilya's story came about, in part, through my attempt to unpack these experiences, to tap into Aleksey's resilience and into that mix of trepidation and euphoria with which Olga and Tatiana took in my family, my world and our version of America.

Very roughly speaking, the novel seems to tie Ilya's coming-of-age story to an unravelling mystery about his brother's culpability in a series of brutal murders. What inspired you to meld these seemingly disparate plotlines?

I love mysteries and coming-of-age stories, and when I began writing the novel (more years ago than I care to count), I wanted it to be both. I've always been obsessed with the structure of "The Gift of the Magi," and that was an early inspiration for the novel, though the "gifts" that Ilya and Vladimir exchange create an imbalance in their relationship--and the only way for Ilya to rectify this is to solve the murders.

I think, too, that in a way the storylines aren't disparate at all. Solving the novel's central mystery is the catalyst for Ilya's coming-of-age because it allows him a deeper understanding of Vladimir and Vladimir's love for him. To me, decoding that familial bond is what the book is about as much as it's about the murders.

Ilya's town and the people in it seem haunted by the past. How did you get a sense of the shadow communism and the gulag cast over their lives?

Through visiting Russia and by reading everything I could get my hands on about Russia in the '90s and '00s. Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich was absolutely indispensable. It's a collection of oral histories from 1991 to 2012 that beautifully captures the complexity of Russians' view of Communism and its collapse. Communism did cast a long shadow, but in the poverty and chaos of perestroika there was also a lot of nostalgia for it.

That said, Ilya and Vladimir are teenagers. History is all around them, but that doesn't mean they're always aware of it or sensitive to it. They're not above lying to a woman from Moscow about where the camp graves are or rolling their eyes at their grandmother's paranoia. This is a long way of saying that it was important to me that their characters--their personal histories--took precedence over their national histories.

It seems that one of the biggest differences between American and Russian mindsets in the book is that Americans are more optimistic, Russians pessimistic. Is that something you've found to be true?

Interesting. I think both the Russians and the Americans in the novel are optimistic, they just wear their optimism very differently. Ilya's storyline is fueled by hope--his own, his grandmother's, his mother's, his teacher Maria Mikhailovna's and, most significantly, Vladimir's. And, of course, Ilya's own mission to get Vladimir out of prison is almost outrageously optimistic, given how thoroughly the cards are stacked against him. 

Ilya and Sadie's bond seems formed in part out of what they have in common: traumatic pasts. What are the challenges that come with writing young characters who are dealing with such adult problems, or who feel out of place in typical teenage worlds?

Ilya is living with one foot in the past and one in the present. He's half in Russia, half in Louisiana, and the enormity and urgency of the problems he's dealing with don't leave him much time or bandwidth for typical teenage life. But life presses in--there's his burgeoning crush on Sadie, his first day of school, dinner with the Masons--and having Ilya engage with these less pressing concerns felt like an incredibly difficult balancing act, one that I had to reckon with in each chapter, paragraph and sentence. Anthony Marra once told me that you need to make a reader laugh and cry on every page. I don't think I've ever managed that, but allowing some typical teenage life on the page felt key to achieving a tonal balance in the book. 

This book is coming out at a time when the United States has a complicated--to say the least--relationship with Russia. Did any of that change how you perceive your book?

I think there's a risk that our current relationship with Russia will lead to a resurrection of Cold War stereotypes, and it's my hope that the novel challenges some of those stereotypes, that it brings to light a very different segment of Russian society, far from the intrigues of Moscow, but still very much subject to its politics. --Hank Stephenson

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