I have read some good fiction lately, but this one is special like "Catcher in the Rye" or "The Curious Incident" or maybe "The Kite Runner". Instead of telling the story, I will make observations as to why I loved it:
1. Many historical fiction novels are written from the perspective of the thinking of the time. Although it is interesting to observe how people think people thought in the past, it can be a little too un-modern and sometimes boring, like reading "Moby Dick" or some other great, but somewhat over the top book. Here, we are set back in time by the grandson who is just like us, telling the story his grandfather tells him, but with language and interpretations that are how we think about things today. Instead of finding this tool to be unrealistic and too Hollywood modern, I found just the opposite. I felt like I really was back in time and I related to the characters like they were my best friends and buddies. I loved this approach to history telling.
2. The primary relationship in the book is between a shy, 17 year old Jewish boy who is intelligent, clever, educated and a great story teller. There is a running dialogue in his head describing his sometimes ridiculous and unimportant thoughts and observations as life threatening things are occurring. His older buddy is a young "man of the world" a college boy who is experienced with women, a writer and philosopher, a handsome and sometimes arrogant guy. He puts his arm around his younger shy friend's shoulder and starts to teach him about wine women and song. It is a touching and fun relationship that works as well as any friendship relationship I've ever read. The observations of the younger as to the older's sometimes graphic and raunchy statements and experiences are absolutely brilliant and spot on. This is how life and relationships really work and the author has been able to convey these experiences in a way that makes us relive similar things in our lives as older kids taught us about what really goes on in the adult world and we're half thinking it's a lie and half believing it, yet shaking our heads. I can't think of a book I've read that does this kind of coming of age relationship as well.
3. Because the story moves fast and is more about relationships and internal observations, you would think that the history of the time is secondary. However, the story gives us a very realistic feeling of how it must have been to be suffering through the invasion of the Germans into Leningrad in the horrible cold of the winter without much good food or shelter or equipment. There is a lot of good information about the cold and calculated way of the Nazis and the underfunded and yet heroic attempts of the Russian people to fend them off. And yet, as important as the historical setting of the book is, the thing that makes it work well is the commentary and thoughts of our two friends and eventually heroes.
4. There are many other great characters in the book from the brilliant and interesting Nazi leader, an intense and talented young female sniper, and the spoiled and wealthy man who sends them on their ridiculously trivial mission in the first place.ls him, but with language and interpretations that are how we think about things today.