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Invitation to a Bonfire

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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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Adrienne Celt's Invitation to a Bonfire tells the story of Zoya Andropova's travels from the Soviet Union as a young girl to an all-girls private school on the East Coast of the United States during the 1920s. She struggles through the last years of her schooling trying to learn English and make friends. The novel is uniquely told through a series of diary entries, letters, and newspapers articles. 
The setting of a private boarding school, the experience of the outsider, and plotting of an eventual affair will hold many reader's interest. I enjoyed the history of the Soviet Union and hearing the story from Zoya's point of view, but felt some of the other voices were not as authentic.
Thank you to NetGalley, Bloomsbury, and Adrienna Celt for the opportunity to read an advanced copy for review.
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I really, really wanted to like this book. The synopsis sound great, so I figured I'd enjoy it. Unfortunately, I just could NOT get into it. I've spent the last three days trying to read this book. I thought for SURE I must be almost half-way through it, but when I looked and saw I was only 12% of the way through, I decided it was time to move on.

I'm giving this two stars and not one because, while I couldn't get into the story, the writing is excellent. Strange, I know, so say the writing of a book I couldn't finish was great, but it really was.

This book is 100% a slow burn, and I'm just not in the mood for a slow-burn book. I don't discourage anyone from reading this, but just know that it is NOT an 'I-must-see-what-happens-next' page turner. 

**I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review**
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This one intrigued me from the get go. It had entirely too many elements I’m interested in (historical fiction, immigration, author, books, current and old manuscripts) to ignore. I’m actually quite surprise I didn’t end up loving this one, this is more of a strong like and appreciation situation. And it took me until 90% to put a finger on why and here it is, the main protagonist confused me. We see the entire story mostly from her perspective (the novel has an epistolary structure and Zoya’s journal entries are the bulk of it) and she remains something of a mystery until the very end. She’s a very engaging character form the start, but once the talk of murder enters the picture, she becomes a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Granted that does make for a nice twist at the end, but getting there takes traveling along the WTF road. But anyway, yes, this is first and foremost a love triangle, two very different women sharing a talented author, a wife and a mistress, until the sharing becomes less than optimal. It’s supposed to be inspired by the Nabokov marriage in so much as they were both immigrants fleeing the 1917 revolution, he found great success and recognition as an author, he taught at the American University, the wife’s name was Vera and she (very well) managed his career and day to day life…but that’s about all the similarities I recognized. The rest, the torrid affairs and murder plots, either didn’t make the news or, really, are figments of Celt’s fertile imagination. In fact, it seem like someone who isn’t familiar with Nabokovs might get a very wrong idea about a generally happy, productive and loving relationship based on this book’s allusions, permanently featured in the description.  For a love triangle this isn’t precisely an (insert even triangles word), we are offered Zoya’s perspective, Orlov’s letters and Vera is only known through the eyes of those around her, although there’s enough information either way to render the characters nuanced and interesting. And as a work of historical fiction it’s a complete success, nicely detailed, realistic representation of trying to find your way in a new world after the old one becomes unsuitable to contented existence. From the first chapter you pretty much know the direction of the narrative, the destination is given, the novel is just a road map to it. And at its own languid pace it does there. I suppose all I wanted from this novel was more…more substance toward the end, to understand it all easier. Probably should just use my imagination, but one tends to become reliant on books to spell things out (quite literally) the way the movies (sometimes) and the real world (almost never) does, especially when it comes to the psychological makeup of the characters. It probably just seemed particularly jarring because for the majority of the novel there’s so much of it, Zoya’s every thought, every wish, every belief, and then…nearly none, like a woman possessed. This might be a very personal objection, though, and otherwise the novel has so much to offer and the writing’s lovely, so really this was an enjoyable read and a nice introduction to the author. Thanks Netgalley.
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WOW!!!.....I got to the last page and just said, “WOW”!  Immediately I’m thinking of so many people this book is perfect for -- released in June 2018!

NO SPOILERS..... just a little long...because I LOVE THIS BOOK....A FAVORITE!!! - I STAYED AWAY FROM ALL JUICY SPOILERS- even ‘hints’ of any.....I promise!! None in this review. 

Author Adrienne Celt is now a new ‘favorite’ author. Her writing-artistry is brilliant....on-the-edge-exciting....( I was so in ‘awe’ of her sentences- the way they created deep visuals, thoughts, and feelings all at the same time).  
In ways - it’s a very quiet book - perhaps not everyone’s taste...definitely literary—a very sexy smooth rolling hills type thriller— not a ‘slam-bang-rock-em-dead-Sam’, thriller, at all.  It’s better!  

Let me introduce you to the three characters that will mystify you - 
*Zoya Andropova*, is a refugee from the Soviet Union. ....
Zoya begins the story....
      Her first sentence is: 
             “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.”

At the all-girls boarding High School in Maple Hill, New Jersey, where Zoe ends up after a stay in an orphanage in Russia after her parents died- she’s watches the other American students closely. She especially watched her roommate, Margaret.... calculating the way she walked, smiled; tracking her gestures and habits - from tossing her hair to alternating her fries in catchup and mayonnaise, “ dipping one end in each sauce before taking alternating bites”.  Zoe thought the ritual was elegant and efficient.....
but why am I sharing this tidbit detail? ..... point out how incredibly observant Zoya was.  The other girls at the boarding school had wealthy parents.  They drove their dad’s cars, they had boyfriends, matching sweater sets, tennis whites, and beautiful smiles.  These same girls, however, were cruel to Zoya.... ( in her shabby clothes).  The students pulled Zoe’s hair, pushed her down, grabbed her wrists, hit her thighs with books, gave her cuts and bruises—- and secretly even though Zoe hated them - she almost welcomed their abuse.   Their ‘touch’ - at least- made her feel alive.  Her life was crappy - but it was the only touch she had. 

After graduation-  most girls went to College - Zoe got a job on campus working in a greenhouse - which became her life.  She loved working with plants - it soothed her and distracted her from the snotty girls at the school. 
John O’Brien, her boss- and supportive friend encouraged Zoe to date - which he helped arrange. And in time Zoe moves off campus into her own apartment and has a salary which supports her to buy less shabby clothes and enjoy more varieties of food - besides her budget meals. 

Zoya tells us....”Time is a funny thing, dear reader”. ....
In the physical book that I have- where Zoya says ‘dear reader’....I read the entire page - page 141..and the top of 142, three times. — that wasn’t the only section of this novel that I read over and over but that particular one I stayed with me - came with me for a ride - while moving on....

So moving on to: *Leo Orlov* - a Russian emigre- becomes Lev Pavlovich.   Lev is married to Vera.   After living in Paris for many years, and then New York, Lev was offered a tenured post at the Donne School ( surprise- same all-girls school in New Jersey where Zoya is)
What is not surprising- is that Lev is a big flirt. He was surprised himself that Vera didn’t protest him teaching at an all-girl’s school.  The pay was good at a School with wealthy parents.  Lev was also working on a novel - his thinking was until his books supported them- he would teach. 
Lev let his wife, Vera, dress him, choose their friends, pick their foods.  Their relationship started with the manuscript he was writing - which she had a say in, too...TRUE PARTNERSHIP.... Vera ran their lives.   

About *Vera*.....One minute she is absolutely magnetic, - other times she is as cold as a refrigerator.  A very puzzling character from the get-go....crafty and shrewd.  Her own book publicist despised her- yet others in the community thought she was a lovely woman.  

Enter a love triangle between Zoya- Lev-and’s utterly exciting- dangerous- and seductive.   

A book favorite for me!!! 

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and Author Adrienne Celt — I can’t express enough how awesome this novel is!!!
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