Title: Ivan and Misha
Author: Michael Aleynikov
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Cover artist: n/a
Amazon buy link: Buy Link Ivan and Misha: Stories
Genre: Gay Fiction
Length: 216 paperback pages (not available in ebook format)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Sirius
Summary: This collection of short stories about two twin brothers and their father who immigrated to New York from Kiev was one of the best books I have read this year.
The linked stories in this powerful debut by Michael Alenyikov swirl around the titular fraternal twins and their father, Louie, as they make their way from the oppressive world of Soviet-era Kiev to the frenetic world of New York City in the late nineties and early aughts. Ivan, like his father, is a natural seducer and gambler who always has a scheme afoot between fares in his cab and stints in Bellevue for his bipolar disorder. Misha, more haunted than his brother by the death of their mother after their birth, is ostensibly the voice of reason.
Socially adrift, father and sons search for meaning in their divergent romantic relationships. Louie embarks on a traditional heterosexual dating relationship late in life, while Ivan is sexually opportunistic and omnivorous, and Misha, a young gay man, is torn between his family and the prospect of a committed relationship. The brothers search for connection leads them through a multitude of subcultures, all depicted in vivid detail. An evocative and frank exploration of identity, loss, dislocation, and sexuality, Ivan and Misha marks the arrival of a unique, authentic voice.
I wanted to read this book since the moment when I realized that its main characters are first generation immigrants to New York from the city I was born in and spent the large part of my youth. Of course I love reading the books about the experiences I have never had and will probably never have (like being in the head of the detective investigating mystery, or travel to another time or place), but when I realized there was a chance that the characters had been through and what I had been through may somewhat collide, I could not wait to read the book like this.
As the blurb tells you, this book is a collection of related short stories about the lives of the Ukrainian Jewish family—a father and his two sons—when they immigrate to New York. The stories are not put together in chronological order and even within the story often we do not get to see the linear progression of time, but more or less it covers certain period of time and does not go any further than that. This is NOT a romance book, but it is most definitely in my opinion first and foremost a book about love—about love for your family which is for both brothers and his father a tie stronger than any other ties. I suppose this is also a book about life, about searching for the meaning of life and how it is different and at the same time not so different for all of us.
I have been lucky to read a lot of good books lately and in quite a few of them I was able to relate to the characters somewhat, but when I was reading this book, I was feeling as if I *know* these people. It is more than just a feeling that the characters are realistic; it was a feeling that I have already met them—at least people who reminded me of them in one way or another. Of course I cannot relate to Ivan and Misha’s experiences as gay men (or in Ivan’s case bisexual man), but I could absolutely relate to them getting used to the new country, new lives. I could absolutely relate to their father’s “everything for the children” mindset.
Word of warning in case it offends you: Misha and Ivan have love interests throughout the book, and while Misha’s love interest is more or less permanent one, the tie between the brothers is the strongest and one time it gets physical. It is not written very explicitly; in fact I would say not explicitly at all and it is not shown to happen any more than once, but it does happens. I thought it was more like a physical manifestation of their strong emotional bond, because of the horrible pain they share and a feeling that there is no one else to turn to and nobody will understand you better than your brother.
There is also a lot of pain in this book. Ivan and Misha to me were very sympathetic, likeable characters, but in different ways. They are also damaged, and have their own hurt to bear, but I felt that this was very real life-like. As I mentioned, to me this book was first and foremost a book about love, but it is also book about pain, and diseases, and world of hurt and despite everything else desire to go on, to live. Both brothers are just such complex characters, so fragile and at the same time so very strong. I was also very impressed how writer managed to flesh out their father just in one story, which he narrated. It was quite amazing really.
A couple of other secondary characters—Smith who is Misha’s current love interest and Kevin who was his lover—get to become multi-layered characters as soon as they get their own story to narrate. In fact, I thought the story from Smith’s point of view was absolutely fascinating and shed additional light on who Misha is as a person and made me root for them to stay together. Let me stress though despite Love being significant part of the storyline, this is not romance, if you decide to go in with romance mindset I can almost guarantee that you may not enjoy it that much.
Note that there are few Russian expressions in this book, but they are all translated basically right away, so I do not think it should be a problem for anybody.
I highly recommend this book, but I definitely realize that this is not a book for everybody. For me it hit a lot of my buttons in a very good way, but I have no idea whether it will be the same for everybody else. I will be looking forward to this writer’s works.