In this fictional account of Lev Termen’s life, we are presented with how the Russian scientist invented an electronic instrument, known as the theremin. We witness how his government uses this invention as a means to visit America in the 1930’s, making him a spy against his will. He settles down in New York and believes he will stay there after his ideas are shared with American companies. Although he is married when he arrives in New York, he falls in love with Clara, a young woman who is about fifteen years his junior but who enjoys spending time with him and becomes one of the best theremin players out there. Despite Lev’s success with private theremin lessons and inventing new things, he is watched closely by both his home country and the FBI. When a job he is sent to do goes horrifically wrong, Lev finds himself panicking and hoping that he can continue to thrive in his new life, without being caught. He insists on being with Clara, despite her rejections and eventual engagement to another man. After pretending to live a normal existence with a new wife, Lev is finally captured and brought back to the Soviet Union, spending years in the gulags and scientific labs. A heartbreaking, yet mesmerizing novel.
Hislit title read-alikes:
If you enjoyed reading Michaels’ novel, you may be interested in the following books:
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Curtain of Death by W.E.B. Griffin
The Voyage by Murray Bail
It is not surprising that Michaels’ book won the Giller Prize in 2014. I was lucky to have the chance to meet him and see him demonstrate how a theremin actually works! If you like a musical instrument that looks like a cool gadget and want to experience how it sounds, reading the novel will give you that satisfaction. Truly something else to witness it in person, though 🙂