This is the first book I've read by John Crowley; I'd been attracted to buy it from a review, and was particularly looking forward to many of its elements--an exiled poet from Russia, how language can change the world, a look at the time when I grew up (I'm the same age as Kit, and I also grew up and went to college in the Midwest), with a backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I didn't know much about.
However, I never got drawn into this novel--the writing seemed to keep me at arm's length, and I just didn't care about Kit, the young student/poet who is looking back at her days at college with the newly exiled Russian poet Falin, while also visiting Russia--and Falin's poet friend(s)--for the first time, years later. The writing of this book really disappointed me; I was expecting it to be better, though I can imagine it would appeal to some (the flat tone, perhaps).
The novel has a lot of elements to it but, for me, many just weren't detailed or developed enough (except Kit's story--and I found myself not caring about her past because I didn't care about her, period). I have young friends from Russia and know of the importance that poetry has in the lives of Russians that it simply doesn't in America; I found the book interesting in that regard, though so wished for more detail, both in the present-day Russian segments and in Falin's history (though the 'besprizornye'--lost children--of Russia is eye-opening, but I wanted more of Falin's past and less of Kit's brother's). I especially was fascinated by what details there are about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but again, thought there could have been so much more done with this, longed for more specifics in this backdrop.
The book seemed somewhat of a mishmash for me--is it a love story between Kit and Falin? Well, yes and no. Is it a Cold War whodunit? Well, no, not really, you never really understand fully what happened that last night, though Crowley threads the Cold War and the CIA/FBI through the last part of the novel particularly. Is it really about the power of language or poetry? Again, yes and no.
I felt, at the end, that I had read little bits about various interesting topics that just never quite hung together as a whole. I thought about the ending for awhile, but the book just never made an emotional impact on me, wasn't a book I thought about or pondered a great deal while I was reading it and didn't leave me thinking about it for days afterwards, as I do when I finish a book that's both multi-layered and pulls me into the story.
I would like to agree with the other five-star reviewers here, but just can't, in all honesty, though I started the book hoping I had a wonderful find in my hands. I kept on hoping it would pick up, draw me in, but it never did, alas. This may appeal, though, to readers who like more 'intellectual' or abstract books than I do--I like to get intimately involved in a story.