Little, Brown, 2003, 16.95, 133 pp.
In the 1930s and early 1940s biologist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world as a highly regarded scientist seeking rare plants. He worked out of an experimental Leningrad botanical "institute" when he wasn't searching the world for specimens. He cherished his wife, but enjoyed making love to other women too. In other words he enjoyed life.
In 1942, the Hitlerite Nazis surround the city leading to dramatic food shortages. Though starving and ailing, the scientists vow to protect their rare specimens of seed, grains, and tubers. While seemingly all adhere to the pact including Nikolai's wife Alena, he breaks the pledge. Nikolai nibbles at the specimens, which saves his life. Those who kept the pledge, including Alena, die. He wonders if cowardice saved his life or if he even should be classified a coward.
Readers will feel 1942 Stalingrad as the story line provides a powerful look at the impact of the siege as much as it furbishes depth to genetic botany. Nikolai is an interesting character when he admits he failed his peers. When he rationalizes his behavior, the novel loses some momentum towards fulfilling its basic theme of surviving at any cost. Still this is an intriguing historical biographical fiction.
This report prepared by Harriet Klausner