A Bend in the Stars: A Novel

By – March 2, 2020

Rachel Barenbaum’s absorb­ing debut nov­el A Bend in the Stars has some­thing for every read­er. A work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion that explores the tan­gled rela­tion­ships between the var­i­ous pro­tag­o­nists, it also touch­es upon the dif­fi­cul­ties women physi­cians in Rus­sia faced as pio­neers in their field; the harsh real­i­ty of dai­ly life for Jews in Rus­sia before World War I; and the dif­fi­cul­ty in prov­ing Einstein’s The­o­ry of Relativity.

Miri Abramov, a new­ly-trained sur­geon at a time when women were viewed as less capa­ble than their male coun­ter­parts, is engaged to mar­ry her men­tor, Yuri, but her fam­i­ly is sud­den­ly forced to flee because of the Czar’s order to con­script all Jew­ish men in the town. To com­pli­cate mat­ters, a pow­er­ful Russ­ian admin­is­tra­tor at the uni­ver­si­ty where Miri’s broth­er Vanya works is attempt­ing to under­mine him. The author places the fic­tion­al Vanya in the race to prove Einstein’s The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty; in actu­al­i­ty, Ein­stein did make use of the work of sev­er­al math­e­mat­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic thinkers, such as Hen­ri Poin­caré, in his final proof. Since Vanya has been promised that if his equa­tions prove Einstein’s the­o­ry he and his fam­i­ly will be allowed to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca, he is dou­bly deter­mined to escape.

Miri joins up with a wound­ed sol­dier named Sasha whose life she has saved and slips away in one direc­tion, while Vanya and Yuri head off in anoth­er. The sto­ry then switch­es back and forth between the har­row­ing expe­ri­ences of both groups of travelers.

The author skill­ful­ly moves the plot along, focus­ing on the nar­ra­tive ten­sion of the dan­gers the char­ac­ters face. She builds mul­ti-lay­ered back­sto­ries for each of her three main char­ac­ters, so that the read­er under­stands their actions and moti­va­tions. How­ev­er, the book exerts its most pow­er­ful emo­tion­al pull in its exam­i­na­tion of Miri’s strug­gle to under­stand her feel­ings for both Yuri and Sasha. The fact that a new nov­el­ist like Baren­baum has craft­ed a plot with plen­ty of dra­ma, while also weav­ing a com­plex web of rela­tion­ships, is the mark of a gift­ed nov­el­ist indeed.

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Rachel Barenbaum

  1. In the novel’s open­ing scene, Ethel says to her grand­daugh­ter, Lena, Life doesn’t trav­el in a straight line. Know­ing the end doesn’t mean you can fol­low it back to the begin­ning.” Where did this bit of wis­dom come from? What is she try­ing to teach Lena? And what does this par­tic­u­lar les­son mean to you?

  3. A Bend in the Stars is orga­nized by sec­tions that are based around the Hebrew cal­en­dar. Why do you think the author made the choice to struc­ture it this way? How does it change your expe­ri­ence of the story?

  5. Baba’s role as a suc­cess­ful and trust­ed match­mak­er allows her an ele­vat­ed posi­tion among the Jews of Kovno, yet it places her and her grand­chil­dren in a lim­i­nal spot in Russ­ian soci­ety, mem­bers nei­ther of the work­ing poor nor the more com­fort­able, respect­ed high­er class­es. Is this in-between” sta­tus good or bad, do you think, for the Abramovs? Can you think of exam­ples of the ways in which they ben­e­fit or suf­fer from this unique spot in the social hier­ar­chy? Are there any peo­ple or groups of peo­ple in our mod­ern soci­ety who exist in this in-between space?

  7. When Yuri orig­i­nal­ly agrees to take Miri on as his stu­dent and train her to be the first female sur­geon in Kovno, he warns her that her choos­ing this career path will require them both to make sac­ri­fices. Did you have to make any sac­ri­fices to fol­low your pro­fes­sion­al dreams? What about your per­son­al dreams? Do you think Miri would have gone ahead and fol­lowed her ambi­tion if she’d known where it would lead?

  9. At first glance, Dima and Vanya could not be more dif­fer­ent: a gruff, vio­lent, sea­worn sailor look­ing only to save his hide and a timid, cere­bral Jew­ish physi­cist with a head full of num­bers and ide­al­is­tic dreams. Yet, by the end of the book, they have both made immense sac­ri­fices for the oth­er. Do they have more in com­mon than it orig­i­nal­ly appears? Why or why not?

  11. Many of the novel’s most piv­otal scenes take place on trains. Why do you think Baren­baum made this choice? What impor­tance do trains hold in the larg­er scheme of the book?

  13. After Miri saves Sasha from the riv­er and their trust begins to grow, she finds her­self with an unex­pect­ed prob­lem: she is caught in a love tri­an­gle between two good but dif­fer­ent men, both of whom are deter­mined to love her the best way they know how. Do you think she makes the right choice in the end? Would you have cho­sen differently?

  15. On the day of the fate­ful eclipse, Vanya and his com­pan­ions are stark­ly con­front­ed by the dan­ger­ous super­sti­tions that the vil­lagers still hold about sci­en­tif­ic events. Miri faces this in the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty, too, when she tries to cure the tongue-tied baby who has been cursed.” Can you think of any mod­ern day equiv­a­lents to this fear and distrust?

  17. Baba encour­ages Miri to make her way in the world: The word Jew’ is not stamped on your fore­head.” Does this idea of pass­ing,” of allow­ing your cul­tur­al, racial, or reli­gious iden­ti­ty to be obscured, remind you of oth­er sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions either in the past, or even today? Is it ever defen­si­ble, or inde­fen­si­ble, to try to pass” for some­thing you’re not? Are there cas­es that can neces­si­tate or excuse it?

  19. The his­tor­i­cal crimes of the vicious Polyakov broth­ers haunt the nov­el, but Miri and Sasha don’t agree on whether they could hap­pen again. With whom do you agree, and why?

  21. Why do you think the book is titled A Bend in the Stars? Is it pure­ly about the eclipse, or does it hold oth­er mean­ings for you?

  23. Are Vanya and Miri right to believe that ideas can change the world, or is Dima clos­er to the truth when he argues that greed and a lust for pow­er are more powerful?

  25. Ear­ly in the nov­el, Ethel says, His­to­ry needs a nar­ra­tor. Per­haps this muse­um chose the wrong one.” Do you agree? In your opin­ion, is there such a thing as a right” or wrong” nar­ra­tor for his­to­ry, and if so, how do you choose?