Verdict: An ambitious, multi-generational saga that could use more polish but more than makes up for it with abundant soul.
LETTERS TO ALICE will inspires readers not to be afraid and to live bigly, so it’s fitting that its author doesn’t shy away from telling a big story. Two big stories, in fact: the parallel love stories of Margaret and Frazier Pickett, a 21st century husband and wife rekindling their marriage with help from the sparks of Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and Katya and Oleg Mandelstam, dissident artists doing what they can to survive and resist in Stalin’s Russia. Grossman announces his ambition clearly by making Katya a protégé of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago. Grossman is clearly inspired by Pasternak’s themes of personal love, artistic expression, and political revolution. Talk about big shoes to fill!
Grossman mostly gets a way with it, though, because he references Pasternak not as an act of literary pretension, but as a signal that he is in the same tribe of people who think art is worth risking everything for. It’s a gesture of solidarity, not competition. Still, many times I wished that Grossman had edited a little more carefully, so that his execution would be more equal to his inspiration. Some words were jumbled together where there should have been a space. He also relied on clichés when he didn’t need to. An author who can uniquely describe a character’s anxiety with the line, “The bat dug her claws more securely into the underside of my breastbone,” has no excuse for writing two extended metaphors about butterflies in the stomach. Also, he used the same linguistic ticks—such as using “red” as a synonym for “angry” and repeating the phrase, “The thing of it is,”— while writing from the perspectives of the Texan Frazier, the New England Margaret, and the Russian Katya. This was a missed opportunity to give each character a distinct voice. Finally, while the Russian sections were consistently thrilling, the 21st-century segments sometimes dragged. More than once, Grossman would begin a chapter by reversing the progress Margaret and Frazier had made in the chapter before for reasons that felt contrived to lengthen their part of the narrative.
However, about halfway through the book I stopped caring about these small things, because LETTERS TO ALICE cares so much and so unashamedly about the big things. To read about characters who believe so fiercely in the importance of literature, love, and social change and who try so diligently to improve their ability to do all three was electrifying. After finishing the book, I felt inspired to follow Frazier’s example, to stop slumbering through life and pick up a pen to change the world.
~Olivia Rosane for IndieReader