three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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0

missing imageDavid Bezmozgis, a naturalized Canadian citizen born in Riga, Latvia, has been on the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list for up-and-coming writers; he previously published a collection of short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories in 2004. The Free World, a rich, layered tale of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, is the author's first novel.

The Story: By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union, recognizing its uneasy relationship with the "refuseniks," Jewish citizens who longed for lives elsewhere and were consistently denied the opportunity, began easing emigration rules. Families opting to leave the Soviet bloc often stayed in Italy before moving on to America, Canada, Australia, or Israel. The Free World takes place over five months in 1978, focusing on a former Red Army officer (and devoted Communist) and his wife, a doctor, as well as their adult sons and daughters-in-law. The novel follows three generations of the Krasnansky family on their journey into the unknown.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374281403

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a little-known and interesting émigré story, but the author resists the history lesson, instead immersing readers in 1978 expatriate Italy through ordinary details. ... David Bezmozgis' voice and impressive talent is his own." Teresa DiFalco

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"A rich and absorbing story. ... Out of the stream of the every-day, Bezmozgis brings his considerable talent for observation and humor." Eleanor Mallet

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Bezmozgis laces even his darkest humor with pathos. While his depictions don't flatter his subjects, they honor them by conveying each person's individual history, motivations and truth." Liesl Schillinger

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If this review has focused more on ideas and characters than storyline, it's because this is a novel unusually light on plot. ... Overall, though, The Free World is powerfully realized, absorbing, and old-fashioned in satisfying ways." Michael Lowenthal

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Bezmozgis is such an astute and compassionate observer, a meticulous historian and a gifted stylist that, even when suspense and momentum seem to be lacking, the pages still tend to fly by. The novel falters only during what one might expect to be its most gripping sequence." Adam Langer

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"The steady accretion of historical detail eventually works, transforming an old man who can admittedly seem ridiculous into a dignified figure who commands our empathy and even our respect. ... Most important, Free World embodies the malaise, which would become common after 1989, of people who had finally won the freedom to move, only to learn there was no place to go." Mike Fischer

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"The Free World is a pale, wise-cracking creature in comparison with the angry and full-throated work of Henry Roth or Bernard Malamud--or of the Canadian-Jewish standard-bearer Mordecai Richler. ... There are plenty of Jews adrift in Mr. Bezmozgis's novel, but all that their wandering signifies is indifference to a destination." Sam Sacks

Critical Summary

For burgeoning talent David Bezmogzis, comparisons to Philip Roth, Leonard Michaels, or his contemporary Gary Shteyngart might be inevitable. After all, Bezmozgis's honest clarity, attention to history, and understated wit permeate his debut novel. The power of The Free World and Bezmozgis's creative vision isn't in the breadth of the Krasnansky family's experience--for large parts of the book, nothing much happens, really--but in the depth of the characters--flawed, ambitious, and hopeful--who leave their homeland to begin their odyssey to the West.