Adrienne Celt’s second novel follows a young Russian émigré as she is drawn into a complex love triangle with a brilliant novelist and his ambitious wife. Told via a collection of diary entries, letters and documents bequeathed to an elite private high school in memory of the famous Russian novelist who briefly taught there, Invitation to a Bonfire is a cleverly constructed novel about love, obsession and revenge.
Zoe (Zoya) Andropova, an orphaned refugee from the newly formed Soviet Union, is enrolled as a charity case at an boarding school in New Jersey, where she tries her best to fit in with her wealthy classmates. After graduation, with no real options, Zoe takes a job in the school’s newly constructed greenhouse where she is cruelly bullied and ostracized by the students. Desperately lonely, she is especially vulnerable to the attentions of visiting writer Leo Orlov, a Russian émigré like herself. Even his imperious and calculating wife, Vera, whom Zoe remembers meeting in a Soviet youth group, isn’t a deterrent, and Lev and Zoe begin a passionate affair. Before Leo leaves on a dangerous (and fruitless) trip to the USSR to locate an early manuscript, he begs Zoe to help free him from the marriage. As they plan a future together, Zoe realizes that the relationship between the Orlovs is far more complex than she ever realized.
Lev and Vera are very loosely based on Nabokov and his wife, Vera. Vera was well known as the translator and critic of her husband’s most famous works, and the novel pays homage to the great writer in Celt’s use of an unreliable narrator and a title that’s echoes one of Nabokov’s earlier novels. But the cunning plot and Celt’s singular, sparkling prose are very much her own.
Invitation to a Bonfire is part noir, part coming of age and a wholly enjoyable read.