The Boy in the Bridge is one of those instances where the cover does not prepare you for the story within its pages. Sure, The Boy on the Bridge centers around a romance, but it's not the fluffy, cute read the cover suggests. Actually, The Boy on the Bridge is a story of a college student studying abroad in the Soviet Union, and discovering the hardships of life there, both physical and interpersonal.
The setting of The Boy on the Bridge made this a win for me, above and beyond the storytelling or the characters. Russian and Soviet history are among my fascinations, and The Boy on the Bridge takes place in an era with which I am less familiar. It's 1981, and the Soviet Union will continue to limp along for another ten years, and there's an air of desolation to Leningrad, which Standiford captures perfectly. Mistrust hangs in the air. Stalin may be long dead, but fear of being turned into the KGB for anti-Party activities is still rampant. The disparity between the quality of life for the American exchange students and regular citizens is shocking and sad; Laura and her fellow foreign students can obtain products Russians cannot. Basically, everything about the setting was well done, and such a nice break from all the books set in the US.
In one of my favorite novels and film adaptations, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, there's a line about how Lucy was "transfigured by Italy," where she traveled with her cousin Charlotte on the sort of extended holiday wealthy Brits indulged in during the early twentieth century. In such a way was Laura transfigured by Russia. Like Lucy, falling in love with someone she wasn't meant to was a big part of the transformation, but so too was seeing a different way of life and learning about the tenuousness of life.
The Boy on the Bridge deals with a slightly older heroine, nineteen and a college student, but she's no less naive in romance. Her boyfriend of sorts back in the US is a cheater and a creep, based on the evidence of the letter he sent her, so it's initially exciting to see her move on with the Russian boy who drives overeager gypsies away. However, Laura becomes too enraptured with Alyosha, skipping class and risking getting kicked out of the program to spend time with him. Normally, such a romance might bother me, but Standiford keeps the overall message one of caution and self-awareness.
Though the romance feels doomed, whether or not it actually is, there's a sense too that she needed this experience, more than she needed the classes at the university. From an intellectual standpoint, interacting with Alyosha and his friends dramatically improves her Russian. From an experiential standpoint, because she takes that risk, she actually gets to experience the Soviet Union. If she followed the rules, she might hardly have met any Russians or have seen anything aside from the scheduled school visits. Whatever may come of her time studying abroad, she'll never forget it and she'll never be the same.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The writing itself left me wanting a bit. Standiford uses close third person, which usually I don't mind, but for some reason I kept wanting The Boy on the Bridge to be in first person. Aside from that, the writing is decent but didn't stand out for me. I also wouldn't have said no to more banter.
The Final Verdict:
Natalie Standiford's The Boy on the Bridge is a very quick read, and a must read if you're as intrigued by Russia as I am. Standiford depicts a realistic relationship built during the timeframe of a study abroad program, against the backdrop of the early 1980s in the Soviet Union.