Thursday, May 19, 2022

I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

We stood, feeling others nearby, but unable to see them. I was alone with Liliana, in a private wrapper of darkness.

“Cristian,” she suddenly whispered. “Do you ever wonder . . . if any of it’s real?”

“If what’s real?”

“The things we see in videos – in American movies.”

It was an odd question. Or maybe it felt odd because I had wondered the same thing but never had the courage to say it out loud. But it also felt . . . suspicious somehow. Too honest.
Title: I Must Betray You
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication: Philomel Books, Random House, hardcover, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction/Suspense/YA
Setting: Romania, 1989

Description: Cristian Florescu has never had a normal teenage life. He lives under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in a small apartment with his parents, older sister, and grandfather. Like many boys, he’s interested in a girl who goes to school with him and has a sister who sees right through him. But he also has serious problems – government agents who demand he become an informant or his family will suffer. Specifically, he is told to befriend the American diplomat’s family his mother cleans for and report on them. He knows he has no choice, especially when they promise him medicine for his grandfather, a firebrand in his youth, now suffering with leukemia. Cristian’s parents and sister are so afraid of betrayal to the authorities by their neighbors they constantly beg Cristian not to complain about conditions or even speak above a whisper. But as other communist regimes start to fall, Cristian begins to realize the world has forgotten Romania. It is up to young people like him to lead a revolution if they are brave enough to disregard the danger. . .

My Impression: This is such a dark and chilling book that my friend Susan stopped reading halfway through. I will admit I was not expecting it to be quite so bleak and I didn’t really like Cristian very much, even when he started fighting for Romania’s freedom. I liked his sister much better! Having read Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray, about a Lithuanian girl transported to Siberia, I knew her ability to create a strong sense of place and memorable characters in a few words.

The contrast between Cristian and the American teenager he is supposed to spy on is extreme. Cristian sits in a class of 40, all wearing uniforms that are covered up by coats, mufflers, and gloves because the school is unheated. The electricity is erratic. The teacher bellows and the students are silent. Cristian is astounded at how warm Dan’s family’s apartment is – nearly 65 Fahrenheit. Dan is carefree, good-natured, and very privileged. He is marking time in Bucharest, casually writing his college essays although he knows he will get into Princeton due to connections. While visiting Dan, Cristian sees a video showing an overflowing American refrigerator and guesses it would feed a Romanian family for a year is disturbing. It is these visits to Dan that give Cristian a glimpse of what is happening outside Romania and helps him understand that the repression these millions of Romanians are experiencing is not normal but will continue unless someone takes a stand. Yet a revolution is dangerous and the reader guesses not everyone will survive.
In the back matter, Sepetys explains that she knew little about communism in Romania until she did a book tour there. She became more and more interested in the country’s history and people who experienced revolution were willing to share their stories. She even interviewed the most famous Romanian of all, gymnast Nadia Comaneci! The resulting story is violent and disturbing but very powerful, resulting in a New York Times bestseller. I read it for the de Grummond Book Group’s May discussion. It is also my sixteenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader down under.

Life Imitating Art: After I finished the book and review, I read an interesting article in The Boston Globe by a local writer about his experience in Bucharest while backpacking through Europe in 1970 to see a Romanian pen-pal he had as a teen and how, naively, he did not realize his visit was noted by Ceausescu’s informants.  Sepetys includes informant reports in I Must Betray You. The Romanian pen-pal stopped writing several years later to protect his family from suspicion but they were recently reunited through LinkedIn.  See, social media is not entirely bad!

Source: Library


Cath said...

I don't think this is for me but fascinating to read about it in your excellent review. I think we have no idea in the west what they went through behind the Iron Curtain and as we're discovering in Ukraine the veneer of civilisation can be extremely thin.

Lark said...

I think it would be hard to write a book about this time period in Romania without it being dark and violent. And although I think Sepetys's book set in Lithuania will always be my favorite, I do want to read this one, too.

Jeanne said...

It's good when fiction raises more awareness about what has happened in the world!

TracyK said...

When you mentioned I Must Betray You here earlier, I was very interested. Even though this is hard to read, I would like to read it because the situation in Romania interests me. And now that I have looked into the author's other book, Between Shades of Gray, I will plan to look for that one too.

CLM said...

When we discussed the book on Thursday, it seemed as if everyone appreciated the book but those who listened to the audio found it more disturbing, which I thought interesting. It could be due to a good narrator, but if a book is dark I wonder if some of us read a little faster to soften the impact?

If you like well-done Holocaust stories, you would certainly like Between Shades of Gray. I haven't got around to her other books yet.