Invitation to a Bonfire

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Apr 2018

Member Reviews

The revolution and following turmoil made an orphan of Zoya Andropova. Therefore, she like so many other kids comes to the USA as an orphan and is welcomed in a New Jersey boarding school. She never belongs even though she quickly acquires the language and gets good marks. After her schooling, she can stay on the premises and work in the newly built greenhouse where she fully immerses in her work with the plants. Neither does she have friends, nor a lover. It is just her work and the love for literature that keep her going. There is one author she has worshipped for years, Leo Orlov, another Russian émigré whose works she devours. When Leo comes to teach at the boarding school, Zoya seems close to happiness, but even though Leo returns her love, there is one person in the way of their luck: Vera, his wife.

Adrienne Celt’s second novel “Invitation to a Bonfire” is set in a complicated time and therefore offers several layers of narration. The book can be read against the background of Russian-American confrontation and distrust. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a girl who struggles in her new surroundings. The story provides a good example of group dynamics, of exclusion and bullying, of rich vs. poor. It clearly also broaches the issue of being forced to leave your country, forced to leave behind everything from your family, to your belongings and even your language. And, after all, it is a story about love and being loved and about what people are willing to do for the one they have fallen for.

With such an abundance of topics, it is hard to find a beginning. Let’s start with the protagonist. It really liked Zoya, she is a decent and modest character, she humbly accepts her status in the new school and avoids attracting attention. Even though the other girls play tricks on her, she remains loyal and keeps quiet. She can endure a lot and does not expect life to be fair. After what happened to her family, she knows that justice is not something you can rely on in this world. This is a truth she has accepted and thus, she can follow her ideals. 

When she falls under the spell of Leo, you want to shout at her to run, far far away from this man and his wife. You can see that nothing good can come from this relationship – but: what else could she do than immediately fall in love? He is the first to see her, to show her affection and to love her. Her free will is gone and the is easy to manipulate. 

The story is not fast paced, actually the love story comes at quite a late point in the novel considering its relevance. What made the narration really lively was the fact that Leo’s letters to his wife and other documents were integrated which allowed you a glimpse at a later point and thus added to the underlying suspense. The author has cleverly constructed the novel and her writing is adorably poetic and multi-layered, is starts with the first sentences which immediately drag you into the novel and don’t let you out before the finishing dot:

“Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. No—let me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly.”
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Thanks Bloomsbury USA and netgalley for this ARC.

This book will keep you reading all night long. You wont know which way is up and down at the end but you'll be satisfied.
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So... I really wanted to like this one.  I'm not a big historical fiction fan... but I love psychological thrillers. I'm wanting to branch out and try different genres.  Unfortunately, I felt this didn't deliver in either genre.

It was a tad bit TOO much history for me.... and I just couldn't get past this. 

I could not get into this book at all. I found myself picking it up multiple times and when I finally looked... I was only at like 20 percent :(. 

This is a very SLOWW burn type of book. I have decided that I can't handle slow burn types of novels. I just become too impatient and feel like there is just fluff added before the actual substance delivers. 

What I did find intriguing was Adrienne's writing style. It was very poetic which I enjoyed but felt it was a bit too wordy at times.

I also was caught off guard big time at the end of the book. I didn't understand at all Zoya's actions and motivations to do what she did? 

I think if you like historical novels and more a slow burn novel then this could be for you.

2 stars

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for the advanced arc in exchange for an honest review.
Published to GR: 5/6/18
Publication date: 6/5/18
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Although this book falls into a category I normally despise, that of the fictionalized biography however loose the interpretation, I chose it specifically because of its root material -- the ever intriguing marriage of Vladimir and Véra Nobokov.   Knowing Nabokov’s predilection for chess problems that he shared with his wife, the reader is hard put to tell who is the pawn, who, the king/queen.  The queen, the most powerful piece of the puzzle, goes anywhere she pleases, but it is the king with the ultimate say.  Together, they become an indomitable force.   

Up against this enigmatic couple is Zola, a young woman, an orphan who had the fortune (good or bad depending on how you see it) of being swept out of Stalinist Russia and placed in an elite girls' school in New Jersey.  Left mostly to her own devices due to her outsider status, she quietly is granted employment in the school's greenhouse, which leads to her entanglement with a fictionalized version of the Nabokovs, and embroilment in their "games."  There is some beautiful writing here ("She was so petite, and yet she seemed to be made of heavier material than me, the gravity in the room all pulling towards her…….“I don’t show very much of myself…..you can see more than most.  Maybe you look harder.”) (I had no choice but to wander around my life as though I still beloved in it.")  (It’s easy to want what you do not have.  I would know.  My life has been a study in this.")  ("Sometimes she looks at me as if I am dinner.")   

The novel is comprised of excerpts from letters and transcripts by the Nabokov standins (I must admit to impatience with the Orlov letters, since it takes a lot of chutzpah to recreate the stylistic flourishes of a literary icon), but mostly through Zola's diaries.  Uneven but involving.
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I was really looking forward to this book, I saw it all over social media and I was so happy I was able to read this early. I was not disappointed by the hype though I was surprised at the depth of the characters. I expected a great story to be the main reason I flew through this book and I was very happy absorbing these two characters and their odd lives. I have recommended it to all my friends and I will continue to do so in the future.
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I have a special place in my heart for characters who are lonely enough to be duped by people who pretend to love them. I always end up reading the book with my heart in my mouth, wanting to reach into the book to warn the lonely character. Reading Invitation to a Bonfire, by Adrienne Celt, was no different—at least until the end, when the tables turned more than once. The beginning of the novel led me to think that it would be the story of people teasing and tricky a girl who just can’t blend in. But about half way through, the stakes rise sky high when a central character tries to drawn our protagonist into a murder conspiracy.

Zoya Andropova might be considered lucky. After all, she was rescued from a Soviet orphanage and brought to the United States in the early 1920s. The organization that rescued Zoya and other children paid for Zoya to attend the elite girls boarding school, the Donne School, in New Jersey. Even though she is cared for materially, Zoya just can’t blend in. She was too old to learn how to be an American. So she was ignored and teased, even after she started working as a gardener for the school post-graduation. When the handsome, talented Russian author, Lev Orlov, is hired by the school and seduces Zoya, it seems like a turning point in her lonely life. The only problem is that Lev is married.

Because Zoya has mostly grown up without love or a affection, she is an easy mark for characters without scruples. Early in the novel, some of her fellow students blackmail her into taking part in a séance. Zoya ultimately takes part because it’s a rare opportunity to be part of a group. The experience isn’t enough to prepare her for the wiles of Lev Orlov, who she meets in 1930. Lev completely bowls her over. All I wanted to do as I read these chapters was shout at Zoya, who desperately needed to learn self-preservation even before Lev asks her to do something terrible. I wanted to shake and and tell her that no one who loved her would ask her to do what Lev asks. A lot of the tension in the latter half of this book comes from wondering if Zoya will do what Lev asks or if she’ll open her eyes and get the hell out of that relationship.

Invitation to a Bonfire is written in documents. There are sections from Zoya’s diary that alternate with airmail letters from Lev, as he returns to the Soviet Union to reclaim a novel that was lost during the Revolution. We also get to see an “oral history” of Vera Orlova, Orlov’s wife. Because this history comes courtesy of the local police department, we know that something criminal happens to one of the major players in this book. I started reading faster and faster the closer I got to the end because I was completely sucked into this book. Invitation to a Bonfire was amazing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.
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This is a book to savor every page - every letter, every page. It has forbidden romance, and it also has a mystery. It has love and war and loyalty and betrayal. The love triangle between Vera, Zoya, and Lev is so intriguing that you will want to read through all the pages as fast as you can to find out what happens in the end. And the end is incredible too! A great book with you like historical romance with a bit of a thriller.
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Celt has fashioned a tricky teaser of a story in this novel framed around the age old theme of a love triangle. Zoya leaves the Soviet Union of the 1920s as an orphan who lands a scholarship at an exclusive girls' boarding school in New Jersey where her classmates make it clear to her that class distinction is all too real in America. Zoya finds solace in a post graduate job at the school as a horticulturalist, but her world is turned upside down when her literary hero, Lev Orlov, becomes a teacher at the school. As Zoya's loneliness melts away under the heat of Orlov's attentions, she discovers his coldly beautiful wife Vera is an old acquaintance from the Soviet Union - and not only the love of Orlov's life but also the taskmaster of his literary enterprises and his entire life. As the love triangle becomes more tangled, the story twists and turns. Is Zoya really the innocent orphan seduced by the famous writer? Is Vera the cold, manipulative beauty she appears to be? As the story's threads weave together, clues point toward the surprising conclusion. Fans of twisty literary fiction will appreciate Celt's novel. #InvitationToABonfire #NetGalley
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The whole seductive love triangle spiel coupled with the genre ‘psychological thriller’ is misleading. The story is told mostly through the diary of Zoya, supported by letters from Lev to Vera, and some interviews about Vera. The story does involve the three of them, but it would be some time before the love triangle would be tackled on.

The story is mostly about Zoya’s life - her beginning, how she came to America, and her life during and after her schooling, all the way until she met Lev. She had initially crossed paths with Vera in her childhood (not a spoiler - she does talk about this before diving in to the full account written in the diary), and would only encounter her again through her relationship with Lev. 

The storytelling element the author used (diary, interview, notes) is mainly to illustrate the events that could possibly answer why a journal like that has been archived. It was already mentioned in the beginning that there were deaths involved, and the account itself is posthumously.

This is very much a character driven story as it spends a lot of time dissecting Zoya’s thoughts and following her growth. The way it ended was surprising but good. However, if you’re a fan of historical fiction, I feel that this doesn’t seem to be sticking to the period it was set on. The way it was written seem like it was set in the 1950’s instead of the 1930’s, even if there was historical references made throughout the book. 

It takes a while for the book to pick up, as the love triangle enter the narrative midway through the book. It did have distinct characters - like Vera who was cold and calculating, Lev who was a prideful charmer, and Zoya, who only longed to be loved and belong.
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Outstanding, the story, plot and characters was engrossing and suspenseful. Totally recommend this to everyone.
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Difficult narrative to follow or remain invested in. I expected more build up of the conflict, but prose was very uninteresting and overly sentimental. Not for me.
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This was a great read! Loosely based on the troubled Nabokov marriage, it was a thrilling tale of mystery and suspense with a little bit of single white female thrown in for good measure. Adrienne Celt expertly weaves a story that made it hard for me to put this down. She even manages to make this feel like a Russian novel.  I for one loved it. Thank you to NetGalley for providing an ARC for review.
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I'm giving Invitation to a Bonfire three stars, because the writing itself was outstanding. I must admit that I didn't like the story, nor most of the characters. The story moved so slowly, I found myself growing impatient and almost stopped reading. As it was, I forced myself to keep going in the hope that the ending would justify the slog up the mountain to the climax, but alas it did not.

The character of Zoya, of course, garnered much sympathy. What she went through at the Donne School was terrible, and I wished to see her happy in the end. She was vulnerable and easily manipulated, and while it rang true that she would  have made the choices she did, I found myself almost angry with her for being such a fool.
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At fifteen, Zoya Andropov was sent to an orphanage where she cross-stitched portraits of Party members, her stomach growling from hunger. Her parents, who were on "the right side" of the Russian revolution, had died soon after "the new and glorious union of our country," like everyone else she knew. 

Then in 1928, she was one of 200 USSR orphans chosen to be sent to America, ending up at the small, elite, Donne School. 

Impoverished and alien, she is bullied and manipulated by the rich American girls. After graduation, now Zoe, she stayed on to work in the greenhouse, victimized still by the schoolgirls.

When her favorite writer, Lev Orlov, is hired by the school, Zoe is thrilled. With him is his imperious wife, Vera, who Zoe saw once at a Young Pioneers meeting when they were girls. The wealthy Vera was then "whisked off to Paris" where she met Lev Orlov. After reading the manuscript of his first novel she claimed to have burned it as unworthy of his potential genius. Their relationship is parasitic.

Lev is a philanderer and Zoe becomes one of his conquests. Lev relies on Vera's judgment to organize his entire life and work but he resents her as much as he needs her. He hatches a plan for Zoe to murder Vera.

Invitation to a Bonfire is mesmerizing and it is disturbing. We are taken to Moscow and the bonfires of typewriters using Old Slavonic, a time when a child's belief in the Soviet State was stronger than familial love. Coming from the ashes of the Revolution are Zoya, Vera, and Lev, struggling with alliances and the nature of love, manipulating and testing each other. 

The bulk of the novel is Zoe's diary from 1931 in which she shares her childhood back story and her love affair with Lev. Interspersed are Lev's letters to Vera and documents from the Donne school and an Oral History of Vera with interviews with people who had interacted with her.

There are plot twists that surprise, with a quick wrap up ending. Perhaps too quick after such a long set up. 

The characters Vera and Lev are inspired by Nabokov and his wife Vera, and I read the style is inspired by Nabokov's novels. Which made me wish I had read Nabokov in the last century; I read his books in the 1970s. 

The book recalled to mind other addictive and disturbing reads, like The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith or Nabokov's Lolita. Unhealthy characters are always interesting and compelling. 

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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This book was a sloooow burn kind of suspense so it was hard for me to get into it. However the writing was beautiful and poetic. It wasn't exactly thrilling but extremely mysterious and at times ambiguous. I enjoyed it enough but not really my cup of tea.

I received an ARC for this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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2.5 *

Like so many other reviewers, I wanted to like this novel but found that I really didn't. For me it was that it lacked a cohesive sense of time and place. It's supposed to take place in the 1920s, but the clothes, hair, technology, traditions seem to belong in the 1950s. Zoya's memories of Russia seem believable, but what was this rescue organization that brought Russian children to the US, dumped them in expensive boarding schools and never checked on them? So much of "Invitation to a Bonfire" seems off-kilter and poorly thought out.

What works is Zoya's adoration of Lev through his writing and the fire of their relationship. Strange and electric is Zoya's possible backstory with Lev's elegant, enigmatic wife Vera who is a mysterious creation.
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Adrienne Celt has written an elegant and compelling new wonder entitled “Invitation to a Bonfire”.  While this will rightly draw parallels to the life of Vladimir Nabokov, Vera, and, inevitably, Lolita, Ms. Celt has created so much more.
Zoya (Zoe) is alone and out of place after being orphaned in early Soviet Russia. She is part of a boat exodus to the US and lands on the shores of a boarding school for highly privileged girls. Zoe is constantly bullied and manipulated. The more she tries to fit in, the less she does. She almost begins to feel like she deserves it.

Everything changes once her dream author, Lev Orlov, coincidentally arrives as Professor of English at her school. And he is joined by Vera. Lev and Vera are deeply in love.  Lev can’t keep his hands off young girls. What could go wrong?

While there are occasional minor exceptions, nearly the entire novel is written from Zoe’s POV. After a while, one begins to question whether Zoe is totally reliable. 

Everyone has a plan. They can’t all succeed, or can they? “Invitation to a Bonfire” has something for everyone: beautiful sentences, plausible historical fiction, and mystery, all wrapped into one. 

Thank you Bloomsbury USA and NetGalley for the ARC.
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I’m a sucker for campus books, and it’s rare for me put one down. Additionally, this is such a highly anticipated book, that I just had to request it. Unfortunately, after putting it aside and coming back three times, I finally abandoned this one. Zoya’s point of view was the gem in here, but Lev and Vera were both flat and unlkeable.
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3.5/5-- Invitation to a Bonfire is a solid book, but it's wishy washy in terms of where it fits in any sort of literary catalogue. It's nearly literary fiction, but not quite so heady. So then is it mystery fiction? Not quite that, either. It falls kind of in a no-man's-land between the two. And it's nearly historical fiction, but doesn't quite feel grounded in a specific life enough (it claims to be about Nabokov, but I didn't feel enough pull or specificity there to say "yes, this is him"). More to that end, the characters weren't quite developed enough for my taste. However, there are definitely moments of brilliance in the wording, and the plot and intrigue is high-- especially if we're comparing this to literary fiction as opposed to mystery fiction/quick beach reads.
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“My aim, anyway, is not posterity, but instead to take a sharp, bright pin and use it to bore a hole- one might say a pinprick- in the swollen history that rests on my shoulders. If I don’t let out some of that air, I think I will go mad, or at the very least confess to someone unwise.”

Zoya Andropova is an orphaned refugee from the Soviet Union, 1920s. She is placed in an ‘elite’ all girls boarding school in New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of the milk and honey spoiled American girls from bubble safe worlds. Wealthy and entitled girls untouched by the tragedy of an outcast refugee like Zoya, who give her hell, who tweak and abuse her. Zoya is much like a specimen, and doesn’t fit, could never fit into their American landscape. She studies them, one student in particular, her roommate Margaret with her beautiful easy happiness. Hungry to learn American habits, as if through intense focus and study she could ease her way into the affection and acceptance of her peers. Instead, it’s one of the many things that leave her naked, that expose her as ‘different’. She could never escape her ‘Europeanness’. She has her uses, her intensity a reason girls seek her out, and she is willing, hungry for connection, even at the cost of ‘pretending’ along with their little game, communicating with the dead, not much different than engaging in memories of her parents, the land she left, just as dead to her.

When she graduates, Zoya doesn’t have the luxury of further education, nor marriage. Instead, she finds herself working at the school in the greenhouse, discovering an intense passion for the plants. She is fast to learn the difference between the ‘help’ and the ‘students’, the girls are quick to turn their meanness on her. She learns to fear the ‘squeak of saddle shoes’, to know the ‘cruelty of rich youth’. No bother, because her mind has been captivated by the Russian writers, the voice of home she so misses. When her favorite author Leo Orlov (Lev) arrives as professor at the school, she is already infatuated, seduced by his writing. A man who writes of ‘worlds of invaded women‘, invades Zoya through every cell of her being, to her very soul. That his elegant wife Vera’s life has run parallel to her own, that they once met, somehow creates an entanglement for Lev. The two seem to become one, though Zoya’s irresistibility is the peasant world she threw off. Zoya tells the reader (her confidant) that, “I took her husband. Or at the very least I tried.” Zoya’s so hungry for touch, lonely, her heart a hostage of Lev’s attentions that she is almost sick with love. There is a darkness that lurks at the edge of their affair, threatening to swallow Zoya.

Vera is Lev’s northern star, but he resents that too. She keeps his career flourishing, she knows him to the bottom of his soul.  But deep inside Lev bucks at being managed, known and she once wounded him deeply early in their relationship; an anger he has fiercely clung to. Vera, in the eyes of observers, is cold and aloof, and Zoya knows all too well she is a better match for him. How much can Zoya know about their marriage, dependent only on Lev’s side? She is almost as obsessed with Vera as she is with Lev. Two women from the same country (though different worlds, socially), both in love with the same man, but for whom does Lev’s Russian heart truly beat? Who deserves him, who ever really gets what they deserve or really understands what they are getting?

I devoured this novel, and highlighted passages with a madness that the best of books drive me to. I believe I tend to grab at novels with refugees from Europe, maybe because of the many tales (light and dark) that have lived in my ears told by my own father and grandparents. There is always a mysterious edge to the characters that I find relatable. Zoya standing on the outside of all that golden American wealth and beauty, both desiring that right of ‘happenstance’ they take for granted and wanting to reject it, births a desperate need in me to mother her. Zoya is a fast study, but still her heart is a bottomless maw, starved for everything she has been denied. She is engulfed by her infatuation, and yet could it really be any other way? The novel turns and twists, and left me stunned. Zoya isn’t always likable, neither is Vera but both are fascinating in the spaces they occupy in Lev’s world.

Lev begins as a shameless flirt, a practiced seducer (he is a writer, after all) and yet through his wife we see him weakened, childlike. In Zoya’s eyes his writing is genius, he is passionate and deep. Each character is multifaceted, trustworthy one minute, deceptive the next. They are all three driven by their passions, even if Vera’s are cool and controlled. Vera’s intelligence and beauty seems more like a spell that other’s can’t resist, male or female. We often want that which glimmers just out of reach.

The ending gave me a strange feeling, a reminder to be careful with your plans, people are not so easily managed. The writing is beautiful, and Zoya’s memories, ‘coming of age’, and slow seduction are a gorgeous creation. I have a new favorite novel! Way to heat up the summer!

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Bloomsbury USA
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