This is one of those books that isn’t going to be a life-long favorite or one I remember forever, but it’s one that easily earns five stars in every other department. Based on a true story of the author’s grandfather’s late teen years, City of Thieves depicts the Siege of Leningrad, and the mission that two young men go on to find the holy grail: one dozen eggs for a wedding cake. It’s this slightly ridiculous plot, set in a starving, war-torn city, that sets the tone for the entire novel. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s moving in such a way that your heart hurts but tears don’t come to your eyes.
The author doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific aspects of the war and its effects on families and individuals—starvation, cannibalism, rape, murder—but quickly bounces back with raw levity. This back and forth doesn’t feel forced or erase or diminish the sadness of the story, but shows the reality of life at this time in history: the people of Leningrad survived, and they survived by making do.
Despite the content, the way it’s written makes it feel jolly, almost like a (very dark) fairy tale or fable. Lev Beniov, the quiet, careful main character, is such a good kid that you can’t help but root for him as he falls in love with every girl he sees (until he lands on “the one”). Kolya, who was my favorite character, supplied the comedic relief, making me laugh out loud more than once with his bawdy pointers for Lev (and his unwarranted gastrointestinal updates: “You know I haven’t had a shit in nine days?”). The slow build of their friendship was heartwarming to watch and provided the book with a consistent undercurrent of love.
This fine balance between humor and war was what made City of Thieves a great book, as Benioff took the horror of war and masterfully flipped it on its head to show the goodness simmering underneath.