Finding Katarina M, by Elizabeth Elo

Harrowing and haunting, Finding Katarina M is an unusual story. The writing is top-notch. The characters are dynamic. The plot is lithe and engaging, with pitch-perfect pacing and enough intrigue to grab the reader like a colt with a new bit racing toward the wire in the Kentucky Derby.

But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little too far-fetched.

A successful Washington, D.C. surgeon on a mission to Northern Nowheresville, Russia to find her grandmother who supposedly died in a Siberian gulag is recruited by the CIA to spy on black market WMD sellers after her teenage cousin and aunt, also recruited by the CIA, disappear?

Then Dr. Natalie March is accused of a double murder, refuses to leave the country, discovers a horrible secret at an abandoned gulag site, winds up in a Russian prison, escapes, and miraculously locates her long-lost aunt in an unmapped village, second star to the right and straight on to Nowhere? And snow. Lots and lots of snow.

And NYPD Detective Ruggeri, CIA spymaster Meredith Viles and her unsavory sidekick, Oleg? Straight out of central casting. And what’s up with that last minute fling with Dimitri?

Even so, the story works.

Dr. Natalie March is a respected American surgeon at the top of her game. Single and closing on 40, Natalie doesn’t have time for anything or anyone outside of a hectic work schedule, her medical journals, and her beloved mom, Vera. A Russian immigrant, Vera has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a care facility. Natalie visits her every Sunday morning.

Vera was ripped from her mother’s arms as an infant when her mother, Katarina Melnikova, was sent to one of Stalin’s notorious gulags. Natalie always presumed that her grandmother Katarina was among the millions of Russians who perished in the notorious labor camps. Until a young woman, Saldana Tarasova, shows up at her office claiming to be her cousin.

A Russian ballerina in the U.S. on a cultural exchange, Saldana insists that Katarina is still alive. She also indicates that her mother and brother, Natalie’s aunt and Cousin Mikhail “Misha”, are in grave danger in Russia.

Saldana is desperate to defect. She tries to enlist Natalie’s help. Reluctant to break the law, Natalie waffles. But when Saldana is murdered, Natalie journeys to Siberia to uncover the truth about her young cousin’s death. In the process, she’s drawn into a tangled web of deceit, double-crosses, and family secrets that pit her against the CIA and the dreaded Russian FSB.

Accused of two murders she didn’t commit, Natalie winds up in Female Prison #22 in the frozen hinterlands of Nowheresville, Siberia. There, her medical expertise comes in handy during a daring escape reminiscent of her grandmother’s run from the gulag.

And snow. Lots and lots of snow. Think Doctor Zhivago.

For the most part, Finding Katarina M. moves with the rapidity of a runaway freight train. It’s high voltage. But at times Natalie’s misadventures seem a bit contrived. We almost lose sight of her search for her grandmother as Natalie wanders through rundown Russian hotels, Siberian reindeer camps, museums, Sakha villages, and Vodka.

We later discover that Natalie’s 19 year-old cousin, Misha, also recruited by the CIA and recently disappeared, was hot on the trail of evidence exposing atrocities at the infamous Gulag Butugychag.

Finding Katarina M. is a prodigious blend of history, travelogue, family ties, and whodunit murder mystery. Skillfully knit into its 322 pages are courage, resilience, and exquisite descriptions of Siberia’s feral wilderness. In the end, Natalie discovers far more than she ever thought she’d find.

Overall, Finding Katarina M. is an engaging, rich read if you’re able to willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy some good historical fiction. Best paired with a steaming mug of hot cocoa and a roaring fire. I’d grab an extra blanket ‘fize you.