Book Review: Finding Katarina M by Elisabeth Elo
Finding Katarina M by Elisabeth Elo is about an American woman who travels to Russia to find her estranged grandmother, only to uncover dark family secrets and a dangerous international plot.
When a mysterious young woman named Saldana Tarasova shows up at Dr. Natalie March’s office claiming to be her cousin, Natalie finds herself understandably skeptical. But when Saldana starts giving Natalie details about their connection—a shared grandmother named Katarina Melnikova—Natalie sets her doubts aside. That name belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman thought long since dead after her imprisonment in a Siberian gulag. If Katarina is indeed alive, Natalie’s world just expanded, and her mother, Vera, might finally get the chance to connect with the mother she never knew.
Natalie starts by attempting to get to know her new cousin the next day. Saldana’s concerned about her family in Russia, feeling that something terrible is happening, but asks Natalie to help her stay in the States. Natalie declines but promises to contact an immigration lawyer. When Saldana turns up dead later that day, Natalie’s dreams of a family reunion are dashed, and her guilt for not taking Saldana’s concerns seriously propels her journey to meet her Russian relatives, and discover what Saldana had to fear.
Finding Katarina M starts with the potential to be a decent thriller, and I was willing to go along for the ride despite a bumpy start. The overall narrative isn’t particularly realistic, however, knowing that going in makes it easier to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride.
The story takes Natalie from a determination to meet her grandmother and her aunt to a roundabout entanglement with the CIA regarding Saldana’s murder, Saldana’s brother’s disappearance, and the situation Natalie’s unwittingly stepped into involving spies, the Russian government, and a potential international crisis. It’s like tripping down a rabbit hole into a den of suspicion, where Natalie can’t be sure her new-found relations are who they claim to be, and the oddities start appearing the second Natalie steps off the plane into Russia. Despite exchanging emails, phone calls, and flight itineraries, Natalie finds herself alone at the airport, the first sign that something’s amiss in her journey:
I scanned the terminal, looking for Lena. It was the kind of place you could take in at a glance; one gate, one baggage carousel, one ticket counter, and a couple of soda and snack machines. Two police officers in black uniforms stood near the main entrance, billy clubs fastened at their belts. Disheveled travelers waited for bathrooms along the side wall, where there was an administrative office and, further along, a corridor leading somewhere.
I’d seen poor-quality snapshots of Lena on Saldana’s Facebook page. With her square-ish face, short haircut, and rectangular black glasses, she’d struck me as stolid and plain, the kind of person you wouldn’t pick out in a crowd. And I certainly wasn’t picking her out now. Luggage from the flight started appearing on the moving belt. My leather duffel was conspicuously expensive and intact among the battered valises tied with twine and the cardboard boxes wrapped in swaths of plastic. I grabbed it and made my way to the front of the terminal. I’d sent Lena my itinerary a couple days ago, and she’d replied with enthusiastic promise to meet me at the airport at the appointed time. Maybe she meant at the main entrance or outside on the curb.
…I was left alone to contemplate the airport’s huge empty parking lot, a dreary moonscape of potholes and broken asphalt. I figured I’d give Lena fifteen minutes before I called.
When the time came, I tried her cell, got bumped to voicemail, and left a message. She’d probably gotten the time wrong and might still be asleep. Just after six, I dialed her landline and got no answer. I called her cell again and said that I was heading to a hotel and would try her again later in the day.”
Eventually heading to Lena’s apartment, Natalie learns from a neighbor that Lena left months ago. The circumstances only grow stranger when an American woman named Meredith befriends Natalie at her hotel, only to reveal she’s part of the CIA, as are Natalie’s aunt—currently hiding in a remote town with Katarina—and her missing cousin, Misha. Determined now to find Misha and piece together her remaining extended family and finally meet her grandmother, Natalie agrees the help the CIA in exchange for them taking her to her relatives.
As far as thrillers go, this one felt a little lackluster to me. The plot was interesting, if a bit scattered. There were a handful of chills, a couple of shocks, but it didn’t strike as a fast-paced thriller. A significant portion of the story could have been trimmed, giving the reader time to sort out important details and characters, strengthening the bond with the overall narrative.
I found Natalie fairly unlikable, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing—unlikable female characters are great—except she showed very little in terms of personal growth in what happened to be a sort of self-discovery journey. Her tendency toward introspection really slowed the narrative in places where speed was necessary, and it drew me out of the story more than I’d have liked.
There’s also a weird insistence from Natalie’s mother that Natalie meet Katarina. I understand that Katarina being alive is a big deal, and Vera’s disability prevents her from traveling herself, but the vehemence with which her mother insists Natalie make it happen feels misplaced, especially when Natalie has a missing aunt, is in a foreign country, and has no way of finding the village or contacting anyone.
I will say the book is well written, and the scenic descriptions of Russia and the Siberian landscape are particularly lovely. The author clearly did her research on Russian culture, and I learned some interesting things about the country, such as the Evenki reindeer herders and their traditions.
I think Finding Katarina M tries at times to be too many things at once, and the structure of the story suffers for it. The conclusion is decent, even if I feel it was a bit lackluster. If you have an interest in slightly-political pseudo-realistic thrillers set in Russia, this is an easy read for snowy winter days, a break between projects, or as a wind-down before bed.