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A tale of intrigue haunts with its sorrow

Despite the Falling Snow, By Shamim Sarif, St. Martin’s Press, 341 pp., $24.9

Alexander Ivanov seems on the verge of a peaceful, well-earned retirement. Known as the ''King of Catering," he is negotiating the sale of his business, begun 40 years earlier when he defected, penniless, from Nikita Khrushchev's Russia to America. Running a company has given him financial security and allowed him to avoid ruminating on his past in the Soviet Union, in particular the mysterious death of his beloved wife, Katya. Now, his friendship with two women -- Estelle, an aspiring writer stuck in a passionless marriage, and Lauren, Katya's niece -- forces a reckoning with long-suppressed emotions and memories.

Shamim Sarif's ''Despite the Falling Snow" contains all the ingredients of a good thriller: intrigue, suspense, and romance. It works as well as a historical novel, depicting everyday life in the 1950s Soviet Union, when political reform suddenly seemed possible, even as leader Joseph Stalin's crimes were fresh in people's minds, and suspicion tinged even the closest relationships. Still, this is less an action tale than a quiet, intimate drama in which Sarif explores the hopes and regrets of her characters with insight and sympathy.

Chapters alternate between past and present. In Moscow, the young Alexander is an ardent lover and a political innocent. A government official, he has faith that he can work within the system to promote change. Katya, whose parents were murdered by the Soviets, holds out no hope for the Communist regime and acts upon her convictions. Encouraged by their mutual friend Misha, she spies for the Americans, stealing government secrets from Alexander, who was then her unsuspecting suitor. The older Alexander has created a comfortable, if lonely, existence for himself as a Boston businessman. Subdued and secretive, he cloaks his grief behind a gentlemanly demeanor. His capacity for devotion is still evident, however, in his commitment to his work and in his interest in Estelle's desire to write.

The parallel narratives intersect in unexpected ways, as the characters wrestle with their choices and puzzle out new possibilities. Katya is torn between her desire to serve the ''greater good" and her unexpected pleasure in Alexander's love and companionship. Estelle, at 61, fears she has led a cautious, circumscribed life. Envious of Katya's boldness and passion, she sets out to learn her story. But Sarif gives each character her due; she does not lead us to belittle Estelle's ordinariness or to idealize Katya's courage. Both women are portrayed in their fullness: Estelle's humor, warmth, and desire for connection; Katya's lies, doubts, and evasions.

Even so, Katya nearly steals the show. She is a far more tormented figure than the romantic heroine that Estelle and Lauren at first envision. Her political convictions give her life purpose and honor her murdered parents but lead her to exploitation and deceit. Yet she is no single-minded operative. At every turn, we see her vulnerability, her sense of loss and deprivation, and the reawakening she experiences in her relationship with Alexander. Sarif's tale memorably portrays Alexander's and Katya's struggle to make a better life under terrible circumstances and the different ways in which Katya's memory still haunts others, many years later.

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