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Author Michelle Granas thinks of a rather odd coincidence to bring the main protagonists together. Yet stranger things have happened than a man helping an old Professor of Literature and his disabled daughter, Cordelia, dig out their car which has got stuck in the woods at night and then crawling into the back undetected by them. When the professor gets a heart attack, the man comes out of his hiding-place, takes over the steering-wheel and drives the patient to hospital.
Meet Dariusz Zaremba, entrepreneur in the building sector, back from Australia where he became a multimillionaire to live in his homeland Poland forthwith but in hiding because he's wanted by the police. The professor's family can't but give him refuge in their house. After all he saved the old man's life. He's able to convince them that all accusations against him are doctored. The next elections are looming and the government need a scapegoat to show how determined they are to stamp out corruption. If he's caught and - against all odds - acquitted, the powers at the top will manage to deprive him of a lot of money. This can be avoided if he signs over his assets to his wife. Only, he hasn't got one. So he proposes to Cordelia. She accepts because she can't think of a sensible argument to refuse him. Some reason!
So this is an unusual love story set in Poland? Well, yes, but not only. Zaremba has two Arab business partners and we're in the hysterical times in which every Arab abroad is a suspect per se. The Americans need a political success as well; so CIA agents chase and abduct the three men, take them to a secret detention centre far away from Warsaw and plan to fly them to the US of A. Cordelia sets out to find her husband. A wild chase through the Polish winter landscape with surprising twists and turns follows.
This is the first novel set in Poland I've ever read. When I saw the title in a review, I first thought it would be set in Africa because of the name. But I've learnt that the surname Zaremba is not uncommon in Poland. I checked the telephone directory of Warsaw and found 22 entries. I trust the author to know something about the country. Michelle Granas is a writer and translator. She was born in Alaska and now lives in Warsaw and in Oregon, USA. The novel was published in January, 2013, it's embedded in the current political situation. At the beginning of each chapter we find a quote from a politician on topical political events which prepares the reader for the things to come. Thusly the events are anchored in real life.
The great strength of the novel are the characters. Cordelia's family are not your typical next door neighbours. Father is a prominent professor of literature who lives only in his world. In case of emergency he quotes Shakespeare. Thanks to his many professional callings they've led a nomadic life and moved from country to country acquiring different languages on the way. Mother is demented. Although brother Antek looks like a male model in an Italian fashion mag, he's sociophobic and hardly ever leaves the house. His sole occupation is to take pictures of the insects living in the house and garden.
And then there is thirty-something Cordelia, the most unlikely heroine of either a love story or a political thriller. She's disabled because of a polio bout. She's got a crippled arm and leg and has to walk with a crutch. She isn't as reclusive as her brother but doesn't feel good in company. She's extremely shy and self-conscious. Besides, she's modest to the extreme and her honesty can't be surpassed. She earns a little money as a translator.
Zaremba is her opposite in all respects. He's a man of the world, care-free, adventurous, good with people. Nevertheless or just because of this, they're attracted to each other. Their relationship is described convincingly, absurd as it may seem. What comes as a surprise is that a love story published at the same time as Fifty Shades of Grey can enthral readers without graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. I wish the novel luck but I know that it won't be sold a zillion times worldwide.
So, regarding plot and characters I like the novel and recommend it. Yet, I have a niggle. When I read a positive review on it, I checked the book on Amazon and found that the Kindle version costs only 77p (paperback 10.33 GBP). That befogged my brain so much that I forgot to check the number of pages before downloading it. 518 pages! My back bottom! The editor should have axed at least 100 pages. What is it the author fills the many superfluous pages with? This novel is not chick lit, not at all, but Ms Granas commits the same crime 99% of chick lit authoresses do. Whenever something is unclear or dubious, the problem is chewed and rehashed again and again and again. The story is told from Cordelia's perspective. When Dariusz doesn't show up (because he's been abducted), she doesn't know what to think. Has something happened to him? If so what could that possibly be? Has he realised that he doesn't love her after all? How can he love her at all? How can anyone love her? Etc., etc., etc.
In my opinion there are four possibilities why an author writes like this:
-They doubt their own talents. They aren't sure that the readers can understand what they want to express.
- They think the readers are a bit thick and feel it's better to rub in what they have to say repeatedly to make sure the readers understand.
- They're in love with their writing and can't get enough of it.
- They suffer from verbal diarrhoea.
Whatever. One star off.
Usually I'd thank an author or publisher that had supplied me with a review copy of a book at the end of my review but I am so delighted to have read Michelle P. Granas's 'Zaremba: or Love and the Rule of Law' that feel compelled to offer my thanks immediately; had I not been offered a review copy, this little treasure would likely have passed me by.
This quirky novel tells the story of Cordelia, a shy thirty-something who lives in a crumbling Warsaw villa with her elderly parents and her brother Antek. Physically disabled as a result of polio, Cordelia works from home as a translator but also cares full-time for her mother who suffers from dementia. Her father is a highly intelligent academic who has no practical skills to speak of and, during any crisis, tends to quote Shakespeare rather than offer any sensible advice or solution. Antek is a grown man with a tendency to withdraw into his own little world; a keen photographer he spends his days taking photographs of the insects that inhabit the dusty recesses of a house that is filled with books but leaks water through the roof and has chilly draughts coming through the window frames.
Cordelia's life changes in the most surprising way when she meets Dariusz Zaremba, a wealthy businessman who has made his fortune in construction. Zaremba saves Cordelia's father's life when he has a heart attack far from home. Zaremba is, at the time, being hunted by the police due to allegations of corruption; in a split second Cordelia, grateful to the stranger for having saved her father's life, agrees not to reveal his whereabouts. She doesn't necessarily believe his claims of innocence but gradually she starts to accept his story. Such matters are a far cry from Cordelia's sheltered existence and each decision she makes sees her fall deeper and deeper into a world she knows nothing of.
The story starts with a series of quotes describing ways in which the political and security institutions in Poland have been misused and the ease with which this has been possible. These precede a number of chapters and their relevance becomes clearer as the story progresses. I found this a turn off at first because I'm not a fan of political thrillers but this is not really a political thriller even if politics and the way that governments (particularly in post-communist countries) are able to bend the rule of law to suit their motives is a crucial point of the plot.
Cordelia is not a politically minded person but she has firmly fixed values and she struggles to counter what she knows in her heart to be right with what she knows to be legal or even practically necessary. Although she has a poor opinion of herself and how she thinks others see her, she is an immensely capable woman in possession of great inner strength; the story sees her plunged from her lonely life as the family drudge into an alien world where she has to deal with covert surveillance, corrupt journalists and even pursued by the CIA. An overview of the plot may seem far-fetched but Granas does well to keep things credible and in doing so demonstrates how simple situations can be manipulated into something sinister.
At the heart of the novel is a beautifully crafted love story which is made all the more touching for its seemingly mismatched protagonists. Cordelia's transformation is an absolute joy yet tempered by her frequent bouts of conscience and self doubt that make her even more endearing. Michelle Granas's depiction of this intensely passionate relationship is all the more notable because it is conveyed without a reliance on sex. The story is told from Cordelia's point of view which makes for the best story because the reader knows only as much about Dariusz Zaremba as she does and so we have no idea whether he is being truthful or not. Like Cordelia I fell for Zaremba and I was delighted by the way he charms not only Cordelia but almost anyone he needs to endear himself to. Cordelia's pleasure at finding someone who sees a real person and not just a cripple is almost as lovely as seeing the usually monosyllabic Antek finally step out of the shadows after years of what we have to assume is a deep depression.
'Zaremba: or Love and the Rule of Law' is a humorous and memorable novel that makes its very serious point in an enjoyable way. At the heart of it is a serious message and Granas is certainly not afraid to highlight the abuses that threaten democracy; towards the end of the novel this is perhaps hammered home too severely but overall the theme is well balanced against the romantic aspect of the story and the two sit surprisingly well together.
Though I recognised details of contemporary Poland in the novel I did struggle to reconcile the serious political thriller side of this story with the almost fairy tale atmosphere that comes from the isolation of Cordelia and her family. There's an aura of other worldliness about Cordelia and her family and I felt this most of all in the scenes where Cordelia ventures into the world outside the villa.
Michelle P. Granas has come up with a highly entertaining novel that had me hooked within a page or two and continued to surprise me until the very end. I can't wait to see what this very original writer comes up with next.
Many thanks to author Michelle P. Granas for providing a review copy.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk