Natalie March is a successful surgeon enjoying a busy life in Washington DC. As her demanding career has left little time for friends or romance, her deepest relationship is with her mother, Vera March, a Russian immigrant and MS patient confined to a rehab center. Vera is still haunted by the fact that her Ukrainian parents were sent to the gulag, Stalin’s notorious network of labor camps, when she was just a baby. All her life she has presumed that they perished there along with millions of other Russian citizens. Natalie would do anything to heal her mother’s psychic pain: it’s the one wound that she, a doctor, cannot mend.
When a young Russian dancer comes to Natalie’s office claiming to be her cousin, and providing details about her family that no stranger could know, Natalie must face a surprising truth: her grandmother, Katarina Melnikova, is still very much alive. Natalie is thrilled to think that her Russian relatives are reaching out after so many years. In fact, her cousin has a darker motive for making contact. Suggesting that her family is in grave danger from Putin’s government, she pleads for Natalie’s help to defect, and Natalie soon finds herself caught in a web of shocking family secrets that will pit her against Russian security forces and even elements within her own government.
How far will Natalie go to find Katarina M. and satisfy her mother’s deepest wish?
Masterfully plotted and beautifully written, FINDING KATARINA M. takes the reader on an extraordinary journey across Siberia—to reindeer herding camps, Russian prisons, Sakha villages, and parties with endless vodka toasts—while it explores what it means to be loyal to one’s family, one’s country, and ultimately to oneself.
Acclaimed author Elisabeth Elo spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing her latest thriller, FINDING KATARINA M.:
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
The setting came first. Siberia is a mysterious place for most westerners. Like most westerners, I had thought of it as dark, cruel–a region of the world where a lot of bad things had happened. And because I like darkness, and wilderness, and adventure, I found myself drawn to Siberia as a setting for a book. What I discovered, of course, is that Siberia is actually a modern, vibrant land with many evolving facets. So the story is dark, but it is also full of hope and surprise.
What attracts you to this book’s genre?
I like novels to take me someplace. I’ve always had a sense, probably from reading a lot, that my world is only a tiny microcosm of all the worlds that are happening right now. I hate that I can see only my own little corner. I want to expand my horizons, and I want to do that for my readers, too. I also love thrillers because I am easily bored. I actually need suspense to keep me reading and caring about a story. So the international thriller is a no-brainer for me.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
The biggest challenge was in getting the people of Siberia right. A place is relatively easy to describe if you’ve been there, and I did go to Siberia before I wrote this book. But people are complicated. I listened as much as possible to their stories and asked a lot of questions. In the end, I had to tell myself that I was writing about them from the perspective of a visiting American, which I was, and my protagonist is, so I had to content myself with just doing my best.
What’s the one question you wish someone would ask you about this book, or your work in general?
How do you keep the middle from sagging? So many books I read start off great and end great but somehow the tension lags in the middle (I told you I was easily bored). I wanted to keep the pace and tension going all the way through, and that’s what I tried to do in this book. It involves constantly opening up the story to the next plausible development, not trying to circle back to what went before. The past is the past in books as well as life, and the novel needs to constantly be striding forward. That sounds so obvious. Probably every writer has already figured that out, but I hadn’t, and this book helped me to do that.
Elisabeth Elo is the author of North of Boston, chosen by Booklist as a Best Crime Novel Debut: 2014. Published in six countries, it was also an Indie Next selection and a Book of the Month / Literary Guild Selection. Elisabeth grew up in Boston, attended Brown University, and earned a PhD in English from Brandeis. She worked as a children’s magazine editor, a high-tech marketer and product manager, and a halfway house counselor before starting to write fiction.
To learn more about Elisabeth and her work, please visit her website.