This review does not contain spoilers.
Not all books grab you immediately. Some take time to win you over, but once they have, you’ll have no choice but to adore. The Tolstoy Estate by Australian author Steven Conte starts off rather plain, but the subject matter was fascinating enough to keep me reading. And I’m glad I did, because The Tolstoy Estate is a terrific book that I recommend.
We follow Paul Bauer, a German medic in Russia during WWII. In the book, he contests with other Germans, and most of all: the memorable Katerina. Both our leads end up captivating, and are easy to care for. Katerina was a hard sell, personally. Her first appearances are struck with modernisms that distract. That’s why in a recent post about historical fiction, I was too quick to associate Katerina’s brushness with a poor storytelling trend.
However, that was before I discovered her growth as well as her capability for kindness and reflection. It’s hard to appreciate those traits in the beginning, because Conte keeps her stubborn and even snarky. What I enjoyed about The Tolstoy Estate is the book’s ability to get better as it progressed. It’s a page turner, and I finished the novel within a few days. (It’s 400 pages long).
Conte tops his novel with references to the Soviet Union, political philosophy, linguistics, 20th Century violence and medical scholarship. Like the best historical fiction, the novel is also a meditation on the time period and the people who haunted it. Although Paul and Katerina are highly charged political characters (at various times), the novel never feels preachy or soggy in its earnest sentiment. Yes, there are sad moments, but Conte never comes across as contrived. We care about these characters.
An impressive aspect of The Tolstoy Estate is the attention to specific subject matter, mainly medicine and literature. The two fields have curious historical intersections, and it’s great for an author to highlight how related the field of literature is with medicine and health. The surgery and medical scenes are hard to read, which adds a vulnerability to the novel. We read literature to feel things, to discover truths and to enrich our lives. Conte understands that, and the literary references aren’t jammed in for no reason.
As I read The Tolstoy Estate, I believed I was reading a novel born out of love for literature. Conte also understands how people communicate their love for literature with one another, and the scenes where Katerina and Paul discuss War And Peace (as well as Tolstoy’s bibliography) are great.
You may not love The Tolstoy Estate at first, but stick with it. It’s superior to All The Light We Cannot See, even if it falls to similar flaws. (The structure of TSE is frustrating at the rarest of times, whereas ATLWCS felt highly disjointed). But I am highly impressed by Conte’s ability to engage the reader, and his chosen ending is well-fitting.
I recommend this book.