The Faces of Strangers: A Novel
- By Pia Padukone
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Terri Lewis
- April 12, 2016
Cross-cultural lives intermingle and impact one another in a story that doesn’t quite live up to its potential
Nicholas “Nico” Grand is about to be elected mayor of New York when the tabloids accuse him of fathering a son with Mari, an Estonian supermodel. Disbelieving at first, slowly Nico realizes the report must be true. As a junior in high school, he lived in Estonia as part of a student-exchange program; the child is 10; and once, just once, Nico had sex with the sister of his exchange partner, Paavo.
“I was sixteen. It was a lifetime ago. I didn’t even start it. She…she used me.” So begins The Faces of Strangers by Pia Padukone, a second novel following her debut, Where Earth Meets Water.
In 2002, Nico and Paavo lived in the other’s country for a semester. The families are introduced, we read about the boys’ first contact and their orientation to the program, and finally, when Nico arrives at Paavo’s home, the story takes off. Nico is handed a bunch of marigolds in welcome and offered a sauna — “practically an Estonian religion” — before dinner. Confused and jet-lagged, he declines.
At the table, he drinks a shot of welcome vodka, which he lets “slide down his throat like a luge,” then after dinner he’s taken to his room: a sofa bed in a family room with no door, only a curtain. “As he looked around him, he realized that the contours of this room were all he knew in this country, this house. Nicholas felt as thought he had been set loose in a place that could consume him unless he was very careful.”
Estonia is an unusual location, and the novel is set during an historically interesting time as the country gains its feet after achieving freedom from Russia. Touches of culture — mushroom hunting and drinking kvass — and bits of Estonian history under the Soviets — a visit to a former KGB site and the story of the human freedom chain which stretched across the Baltic states — hint at that reality.
On a personal side, we get the strangeness of a first encounter with another culture. As Nico says when he lands in Estonia, “It was strange to be remade in a mere few hours, to morph from one person to another. It was as though…[he] had been given an immediate makeover.”
As is currently the trend, each chapter is from the viewpoint of either Nico, Paavo, or one of their family members; both boys have sisters; Paavo’s father, Leo, is given voice; Nico’s mother less so. This structure should have allowed Padukone to carry the reader deep into the relationships between the boys and how their contact affects their lives and the lives of both families. But in addition to the effects of the exchange, the story skims over a plethora of problems.
Paavo is being bullied. Leo is Russian by birth and although he’s lived in Estonia for years and is married to an Estonian, he still has a Russian passport because he can’t pass the language test. Nico’s sister, Nora, had an accident that has left her face blind. We also get alcoholism, single motherhood, Nico’s involvement in politics (unrelated to his time abroad), a mixed-race romance, and discussions of the impact of 9/11 while at Ellis Island.
Any one of these issues could have fueled an entire book, but each problem is quickly dispatched: Leo suddenly stops drinking and learns the language; Mari finds a support group of models who are mothers; Paavo learns wrestling from Nico and the bullying fades away. Only Nora’s struggle to reintegrate into a life where she’s unable to recognize even her best friend is explored in depth, but for her, too, the solution comes from something Paavo says. It’s all too neat.
Occasionally, a vivid insight into a character surfaces: Nico finds “Wrestling was a lot like politics. He’d learned to use his brain the same way he used his body on the wrestling mat-negotiating releases, anticipating moves. Wrestling wasn’t just about your own ability; it was about being able to read your opponent, gauging how his mind worked to be one step ahead of him to see where he wanted to go.” But these insights are rare.
Finally, the novel is dogged by mediocre writing. Many over-the-top or odd turns of phrase — “slumped in a chair like the melted butter that was pooling in a dish on the table”; “her fringe spread across her forehead like a windshield wiper”; “the dining table took up just as much room as it needed.” Odd tense changes, digressions of time or intent within paragraphs, and “head hopping” that yanks the reader from the thoughts of one character to another and back can be confusing.
However, for readers who don’t care about such niceties, who want a story set in an interesting country, and who love to read about life’s problems solved, this novel may be just the ticket.
Although Terri Lewis lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two dogs, she loves visiting West Virginia for the mountains, the trees, the streams, and rivers. Not to forget the deer and the whistle pigs. She has just completed a novel and is searching for an agent.