Book Review: The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman

Katya, a rising ballerina, and Sasha, a graduate student, are young and in love when an unexpected tragedy befalls their native Kiev. Years later, after the couple has safely emigrated to America the consequences of this incident cause their son, Yuri, to be born with a rare health condition that isolates him from other children. Maggie, a passionate and dedicated teacher agrees to tutor Yuri at his home, even though she is haunted by her own painful childhood memories. As the two forge a deep and soulful connection, Yuri’s boundless curiosity and unique wisdom inspires Maggie to make difficult changes in her own life. And she’ll never realize just how strong Yuri has made her — until she needs that strength the most…

A novel that will make readers examine what it means to live life with a full heart.

The Secret of Clouds is about a young teacher, Maggie, whose enthusiasm for her middle school students and her passion for introducing them to the joys of reading and writing seems limitless. Maggie is asked to take on an additional role, tutoring a 12-year-old boy named Yuri who is unable to come to school because of a health condition. Hesitantly, Maggie agrees, but soon is completely charmed by this lonely boy and becomes determined to help him regain an interest in the world around him.

Bonding through his love of baseball, Maggie slowly draws Yuri out of his shell of apathy, and soon has him engaging with her and the worlds of literature she’s introduced him to with real interest and insight. As she begins to earn Yuri’s trust, Maggie also learns more about his parents, Katya and Sasha, and their desperate love for their ill son.

Katya and Sasha lived in Kiev at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, and while they themselves suffered no adverse effects, like so many others, their offspring suffered birth defects — in this case, a rare heart ailment — due to their own radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, as Maggie witnesses Yuri’s struggles to live his limited life to the fullest, she reassesses her own life and relationships, seeing where her true happiness lies and making the changes needed to live life to her best ability.

The Secret of Clouds is touching and appealing in many ways, yet something about the writing style let me down. It’s the old “show, don’t tell” issue: I felt like Maggie was sharing a summary of her experiences, rather than drawing me in enough to see the events myself. The writing kept me at a distance throughout, as entire months or sometimes years went by in the span of a few paragraphs. There was no sense of immediacy; I rarely felt as though I had entered into a scene or had a genuine moment of emotional connection. For example, when Maggie meets and falls in love with a new man in her life, it’s very nice for her, yet I’d be hard pressed to tell you a thing about him other than that he’s a musician and seems to be a really great guy. Granted, their love story was not the main point of this book, but he feels like a cipher to me.

From the synopsis, I expected Katya and Sasha to have equal time in this novel alongside Maggie, but that’s not the case. While we see their lives in Kiev in the early chapters, once it’s been established that they were exposed to fallout from Chernobyl, the story shifts entirely to its 1999/2000 setting, focusing on Maggie and Yuri. Katya and Sasha become supporting characters, in the background as Yuri’s parents, but not central point-of-view characters.

The Secret of Clouds is a fine read with an interesting story to tell, but unfortunately the writing style kept me from feeling truly emotionally invested. I will say, though, that if every student had a teacher as committed, idealistic, and compassionate as Maggie, the world would be a much, much better place!

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The details:

Title: The Secret of Clouds
Author: Alyson Richman
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 19, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley