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Mona is a teenager growing up in Bucharest under the reign of the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Like many middle-class families she and her parents spend a few weeks every summer first holidaying on the Black Sea coast and then staying with family in the city of Brasov in the Carpathian mountains where the coolness brings relief from the intense summer heat. On one of these trips, when she is seventeen, Mona falls in love with Mihai, a mysterious dark-haired student who lives in Brasov. Mona makes a beeline for Mihai whom everyone is saying killed his last girlfriend with a rock, trying to comfort him in his grief and the two quickly fall deeply in love. Or so Mona thinks until her family fall under the radar of the Securitate - the secret police - and Mona begins to wonder whether there might be some substance in the rumours she hears about Mihai. When Mona's father is arrested for being part of a dissident group - not actually against communism but wanting to replace Ceausescu - her parents resolve to put into action plans to get Mona out of the country to a place of safety.
Mona escapes to Italy through Yugoslavia and thinks she will be happy there, almost within touching distance of home. But Mona learns that she can't stay in Italy and ends up in Chicago where she knows nobody. The resilient young woman soon builds a successful new life but Mona can't help wondering who Mihai really was and what her life might have been if she had stayed.
Not only will people interested in modern Romanian history enjoy this novel, but it's also a very good way of learning about recent Romanian history if you aren't familiar with the events of the 1970s and 1980s in that country. The author, Domnica Radulescu effortlessly slips in details that give an insight into life under Ceausescu - the food shortages, the paranoia of wondering who is walking behind you in the street, who you can trust and where people have mysteriously disappeared to - as well as Romanian customs and culture. When Mona talks about the tastes that remind her of childhood you can almost taste the fragrant walnut and rose petal preserves yourself. Even the accounts of the hardships are laced with little humourous details that make you smile. Anyone who grew up "behind the Iron Curtain" will be sure to recognise much of what Radulescu describes.
I loved the description of Aunt Ana who "brought my mother an amber necklace that she had traded for a roll of Romanian horse salami and a pair of Romanian tights" from the USSR. Mona describes how Ana's son disappeared without warning and how, hoping in vain for news of him Ana "waits for him in the evening with dinner ready, and she becomes fatter and fatter until she dies of a heart attack from never seeing Petea again and from eating all the dinners that Petea didn't get to eat".
More than anything "Train to Trieste" is a love story and I thought that Radulescu excelled at demonstrating how much Mona loves Mihai and how much pain her doubts caused her. The love scenes, while not explicit, are very sexy yet understated and the way that Mihai is described as this brooding, raven-haired mysterious young man it would be pretty hard to imagine any impressionable teenage girl not falling for him. Mona says "I taste the raspberries on his lips. I want to melt into the pink clouds and this kiss tastes like the wildest fruit of the earth".
But, of course, this story is different in some respects because of the time and location in which it takes place and I felt that this was highlighted in a subtle yet evocative way so that you don't forget that it's the love story that's the most important element of the novel, and, of course, when Mona is with Mihai she is able to forget those nagging doubts she has about exactly who he might be. "The lacy curtains are moving in the breeze. Through them, above our heads, the three Marxist leaders and the fourth one, our own Father of the Nation, are staring at us. We make faces at them; we tell them to go away deep into hell."
A look at the book's blurb appears to tell you the whole story and you might think there's nothing more to discover. Indeed, as I was reading this novel I felt like there were no surprises. Not that there need be, this isn't a thriller after all; however, I did think that the most important part of the story happened frustratingly too near the end of the book and, as a result, left too many unanswered questions.
"Train to Trieste" is written in two distinct sections - Romania and America. I found the first half of the book utterly compelling and evocative. There was plenty to learn about and appreciate. Mona narrates in the present tense - which I do find a little irritating - but intertwines the account of her love affair which memories of her childhood and stories about her relatives, in particular her grandmother who was rescued when floating down the Dniestr river on an old door and subsequently married her gallant rescuer - Mona's grandfather. Between the descriptions of the harsh conditions of living in the capital, baking summers on the Black Sea and the cool crisp air of the Carpathians, the first half of the book is crammed with stylish and descriptive prose so much so that the scenery almost jumps off the page.
The second section was less successful though it started promisingly with Mona's reaction to a totally new country and lifestyle. It describes very eloquently how she felt confronted by so much that was alien to her at a time when she was very vulnerable. However, the subsequent part of the story became too much of a list of things that happened and really could have been any of lots of books that have been written about the experience of immigrants to the United States.
Like Mona, I was still intrigued by Mihai and it was this that made me read on even when I was not enjoying the book so much. Mihai does appear in the book again but I felt that this could have been tackled better and it was an element that seemed like it had been added at the end almost as an afterthought. With or without the re-appearance of Mihai this novel would have finished in an unsatisfactory way and I am surprised that Radulescu was not better supported by her editor, this being her first novel.
One niggle that may seem minor but that I think has a major part to play in people's impression of this book is found on the front cover. Under the title is the line "An incandescent story of forbidden love". What nonsense! Not only do these words make this book sound like a cheap paperback aimed at old ladies but it simply isn't true of the story. The romance between Mihai and Mona is never actually forbidden. What's more the picture shows two fair haired people in an embrace and, as we are repeatedly reminded, Mihai has raven hair. The illustration need not be a literal representation of the lovers but this detail plus the fact that it looks like a very 1940s picture in terms of the woman's clothing do mislead a little.
In spite of these complaints I really enjoyed "Train to Trieste"; it is a beautifully written novel that succeeds in creating a picture of a pretty and charming Romania at a time most people associate only with misery and hardship. It is a tender love story that isn't sickly sweet and that excels at presenting a portrait of first love. It is funny where it needs to be and is a telling reminder that no matter what is happening on the outside people have passions and fears on the inside that cannot be suppressed even by an oppressive regime.