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Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest...

Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest of her father, a strong supporter of the very regime that has now taken his life. But rescued she is, by well-meaning Americans, who soon dump her at a wealthy boarding school where she struggles to retain far more than her name. She takes refuge in literature, in particular by the émigré writer Lev (Leo) Orlov, whose science fiction transports her to more satisfying times and places.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when Orlov shows up to teach at the school where Zoya, having nowhere else to go, has moved from student to worker, she tumbles into love with him, ignoring both his advances to the other girls and his very present and controlling wife. Zoya charts the evolution of this romantic triangle in her diary, which we read, interspersed with letters from Lev to his wife.

As Adrienne Celt notes early on, Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) is inspired by the life of the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. But as the story builds, it leaves the details of Nabokov’s life and marriage behind, roaring out of a deliberately quiet academic beginning until it reaches a place that upends much of what we have believed up to that point.


C. P. Lesley is the author of nine novels, including Legends of the Five Directions (The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and The Shattered Drum), a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible, and Song of the Siren, published in 2019. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.