Thursday, September 22, 2011

REVIEW: Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov

Good morning all, and welcome to our innaugural stop on the TLC Book Tour. Joining us today is Michael Alenyikov, author of Ivan and Misha, a collection of stories about Russian immigrant twins living in NY.

Michael Alenyikov’s short stories have appeared in Canada’s Descant (nominated for a 2007 Pushcart); The Georgia Review; New York Stories; Modern Words, The James White Review, and have been anthologized in Best Gay Stories, 2008 and Tartts Four: Incisive Fiction From Emerging Writers. His essays have appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review. He was a MacDowell Fellow. Raised in New York City, Alenyikov has worked as a bookstore clerk, clinical psychologist, cab driver, and interactive media writer. He lives in San Francisco. For more information on Michael Alenyikov, visit his website at


SYNOPSIS: In Ivan and Misha, Michael Alenyikov portrays the complexities of love, sexuality, and the bonds of family with boldness and lyric sensitivity. As the Soviet Union collapses, two young brothers are whisked away from Kiev by their father to start life anew in America. The intricately linked stories in this powerful debut, set in New York City at the turn of the millennium, swirl about the uneasy bond between fraternal twins, Ivan and Misha, devoted brothers who could not be more different: bipolar Ivan, like their father, is a natural seducer, a gambler who always has a scheme afoot between fares in his cab and stints in Bellevue. Misha struggles to create a sense of family with his quixotic boyfriend, Smith, his wildly unpredictable brother, and their father, Lyov (“Call  me Louie!”), marooned in Brighton Beach yet ever the ladies’ man. Father and sons are each haunted by the death of Sonya, a wife to Lyov, a mother to his sons. An evocative and frank exploration of identity, loss, dislocation, and desire, Ivan and Misha marks the arrival of a uniquely gifted voice in American fiction.

REVIEW: Ivan and Misha is a novel about the intertwining lives of twin brothers, told as a series of interconnected short stories. Each chapter (or story) is told by a different narrator, sometimes Ivan or Misha themselves, and sometimes friends, family, or lovers. Reading the novel is like interviewing witnesses to the same event – it takes a little work to decipher fact from opinion, and you often have to work backwards to find the overlapping moments of significance, but you ultimately come away with a broader understanding.

On the surface, the brother couldn’t be more different – Misha is blond and slender, whereas Ivan is dark-haired and somewhat stocky; Ivan is a dreamer, often relying on others to keep his thoughts on track, whereas Misha is the thinker, often taking responsibility for his brother. Even when sharing the common ground of sexuality – both brothers are gay – they are as different as night and day in their choice of partners, means of expression, and dependence upon the affections of others.

There’s a lot of love in this book, and a lot of discussion about what love really means. Ivan and Misha’s love for their long-lost mother is an underpinning of their relationship, almost as deep as their love for one another – an intimacy that borders upon (and, depending on how literal you read it, crosses the line of) being inappropriate. It’s also a story about the risks involved with love, whether it’s challenging a father’s acceptance, transplanting twinned lives across the world, or continuing to love beneath the shadow of AIDS.

Of course, there is also a lot of other, darker, more dangerous emotions in their stories. There is an overwhelming amount of jealousy and feelings of betrayal between the brothers; instances of mental instability, both manic and depressive; the looming threat of AIDS; a debilitating stroke; and, at the both the beginning and the end of it all, the spectre of death – the first unnatural and selfish, the latter entirely too natural and selfless.

Not an easy read by any means (the narrative often descends into a dream-like state, the timeline tends to jump around a bit, and some passages are just outright strange), but an interesting one. I’ve been trying to avoid any Eastern European clich├ęs, but this book really is like a Russian nesting doll, with stories inside stories, each of them revealing something grander, but demanding a greater share of attention to appreciate what you’ve found.

1 comment:

  1. I like the comparison to a Russian nesting doll - that really gives a good idea of what the book is like.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.