A summer in Italy sounds like an ideal vacation. Unless, of course, you’re part of a Jewish family that’s just fled the Soviet Union.
That’s the set-up for David Bezmozgis’ new novel The Free World, released today. The year is 1978, and the Krasnansky family has just arrived in Rome from the USSR. While figuring out where to go next–should they enter the lottery for a hard-to-get visa to America? Or Canada? Or Australia?–the family spends a summer in Italy’s capital.
Their Roman holiday gives each of the family members a chance to reevaluate their lives. Alec, in his mid-20s, has always survived by keeping his head down and being average. In Rome, he soon learns that “average” doesn’t pay the bills. His father Samuil, a proud Communist, spends his days trading war stories on the beach. Polina, Alec’s wife of one year, wasn’t born Jewish, but adopted her husband’s religion along with his family–thereby disgracing her parents, whom she abandoned in Riga.
The story alternates between family members, exploring different angles of being an expatriate, a Soviet Jew, and a stranger in a strange land. But what makes Bezmozgis’ characters stand out are their individual quirks–the odd, frustrating, and charming things that make them not only Soviet or Italian or Jewish, but unique.