Full reviews of The Breaking of Eggs

Peter Stothard, Times Online, 18 March 2010
‘I’ve read your blog but what’s The Breaking of Eggs book actually all about?’ was the complaint at Daunt Books on the Marylebone High Street in London last night … OK. Apologies for brevity and vagueness. I was just off the plane from the Berlin streets where some of the many fine parts of Jim Powell’s novel are set … Fortunately, I was able to say that this week’s TLS gives a fuller version by Lesley Chamberlain of why Powell’s book is worth the reading on any eastward plane journey – or any other journey.

Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement, 19 March 2010
The Breaking of Eggs is a novel about middle age: not the strains on the body but on the inner life, the question of what it takes to survive. Feliks Zhukovski, who was born in Lódz, Poland, believes that his mother abandoned him when he was nine. He has made a competent life but never married; he lives for ideas and keeps people at arm’s length. The crisis begins when he realizes how lonely his days and nights are.

Feliks’s life changes dramatically during 1991, a year which opens with a newly reunited Germany and ends with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Living in Paris, he has survived for the past decade on the proceeds of a guidebook to the Eastern Bloc. It has been a flourishing business but the old pro-Communist descriptions will no longer do, for Western visitors will now be able to see for themselves. He sells the business to a big American publisher, crossing the Atlantic to suit the whim of a curious CEO, and all the beliefs on which his life is based begin to unravel.

The sale brings people into an unpeopled life, potential friends and sources of information, who enable Feliks to question his assumptions. One meaningful encounter takes place in the American embassy in Paris when a mysterious French official sits in on a tense visa interview that could easily have ended badly for a man who was once a Communist agitator in a Peugeot factory and who worked on a magazine financed from the USSR. The French secret serviceman René is a collector and disseminator of secrets, both true and false.

Arriving in America, Feliks meets his brother Woodrow, lost to him for fifty years. Woodrow, now Woody, lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his bird-like wife, Wanda, grown-up children and grandchildren. There is a reunion outing to a theme park of American history for the children, and a lot of talking between the brothers, which is easier than Feliks feared. Comfort-loving middle America offends his idea of living in truth, but he has to ask himself, with all the revelations coming out of the fallen East, whether his own Communism had been truer.

There is an imperfect symmetry here: Wanda is an intellectual and moral blank; the house a Legoland neo-Georgian mansion; the history park tour a travesty of how things were. Feliks is not about to become an American like Woody; nor is he a Pole, nor a Frenchman. But Poland holds the clue to his past, because of what happened to his mother and why she had to send her sons away in 1939.

Two-thirds of the way through this fluent, unusual novel, the barriers that have been holding Feliks together emotionally collapse in a dramatic scene in a Warsaw hotel. It is memorable because it involves the unexpected kindness of a stranger and it shows him that truth is not holding a set of values, but experiencing things for oneself. Until the age of sixty, Feliks has been an emotionally deprived child, hence his adherence to the Party and his refusal to accept any criticism of Stalin. The end of a life led according to principle comes when he realizes that human actions are simply not controllable. Feliks is not a warm character, and he still has his qualms about the materialistic, dehistoricized life, but the warm-blooded people around him at Christmas 1991, all with their own hopes and needs, are the sign of hope for a long-delayed normal future.

John Mullan, Guardian, 25 February 2011, on ‘12 of the Best New Novelists’
I remember beginning Jim Powell’s The Breaking of Eggs and experiencing an unusual narrative voice that was neither inadequate nor self-consciously stylish, and a story that proceeded in traditional Greene-ian fashion, from self-delusion to disillusion. The narrator is a man in his 60s, living in Paris and subsisting on the travel guide to eastern Europe which, because of his communist sympathies, he has been editing for most of his adult life. With the collapse of communism, and a visit to his long-lost brother in the hated United States, his ideological convictions begin to crumble. Powell was one of our two chosen novelists over the age of 60 – like his protagonist. The fashion for literary showiness seemed to have passed him by.

Alex Clark, Guardian, 25 February 2011
The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell piques the interest from the first page. Its narrator is a 61-year-old Pole who has lived in Paris for most of his life, devoting himself to updating a guidebook to the communist countries of Europe. The novel moves cleverly between the comic, the serious and the terribly painful.

Leslie Reiner, Publishers Weekly, 28 June 2010
Jim Powell’s The Breaking of Eggs is the story of curmudgeonly Feliks Zhukovski, Polish by birth, Communist (make that ‘leftist’) at heart, who, at age 61, finds that just about everything he has based his life on is crumbling. Sole owner of a soon-to-be-outdated series of travel guides to Eastern Europe, Feliks, self-controlled and overly rational, falls ill and is forced by a chance remark (‘It’s always good to be at home when you are ill’) to confront the fact that he has no sense of home. With great charm, humor, and wisdom – and a vast amount of modern European history – Powell tells of Feliks’s rebirth from a political to an emotional creature. This story manages to take well-worn themes – the horrors of wars, the decisions made and misunderstood or regretted, the costs of political allegiances, the elasticity of families – and fashion them into a fresh, moving, and remarkable story. Unforgettable.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Boston Globe, 30 July 2010
‘When people said it was strange to construct the perfect society on a foundation of human bones, all you got was glib self-satisfied answers from the communists. Oh, they said, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs… How callous. How inhuman.’ So wrote the indignant mother of Feliks Zhukovski, recounting her experiences in her native Poland after World War II, in a deathbed letter addressed to Feliks and his brother decades after the three of them had lost contact with one another during the war.

Feliks, who is now 61 and lives in France, is the cerebral yet emotionally stunted leftist at the heart of Jim Powell’s magnificent debut novel, The Breaking of Eggs. The year is 1991 and the recent collapse of communism has not only jolted Feliks, but terminated his career as author of an annually updated travel guide to Eastern Europe for lefties, one in which he calls East Germany an economic miracle.

Ironically, however, the fall of the Iron Curtain also gives him a new lease on life. Thanks to the much-too-convenient artifice of a resourceful official with the French security services who suddenly pops up on the scene, Feliks tracks down his long-lost brother in the United States and his lover in East Germany. He also learns exactly what happened to his mother. It turns out she died of natural causes – ‘I was one egg that wouldn’t be broken’ – in 1979, but her letter becomes a major addition to a string of searing personal testaments from his brother, lover, and others along his journey, all of which force him to reconsider his views of communism.

This may seem like a moot proposition for a 21st-century novel. After all, neither the unsound theoretical bases of communism nor the abominable crimes against humanity committed by its partisans are widely disputed. But The Breaking of Eggs is no frenzied and outdated polemic. Powell, a Briton, takes aim at the larger phenomenon of totalitarianism of any kind. This haunting, quietly brilliant story of how one man’s emotional upheavals compel him to question his most cherished beliefs underscores the danger posed by any ideology that blinds people to everything but its goals, and justifies the sacrifice of humans to achieve those goals.

Feliks is not exactly unreconstructed by the time the Soviet Union collapses. He resigned his membership in the French Communist Party decades earlier and has since pointedly considered himself a ‘leftist.’ But he remains an admirer of and apologist for the bloody communist experiment. Now, however, his loved ones begin to unspool the coil of emotions he has wound so tightly within himself. Chilling self-observations emerge. ‘For my entire life,’ Feliks muses, ‘I had failed to acknowledge any distinction between people and their ideas.’ How easy, then, to overlook or even justify the extermination of certain people.

Significantly, triumphalism never creeps into Powell’s writing. Nor does Feliks metamorphose into his antithesis. In fact, he remains a leftist. Still, Powell convincingly has him undergo a seismic emotional transformation, one that enables him to adopt a critical attitude toward communist mantras, and modify his Weltanschauung so that it restores respect for human life, freedom, and dignity as the highest value. But that’s not all. That Powell succeeds in placing the conflicted and evolving Feliks at the center of a profound tale encapsulating Europe’s 20th-century travails makes The Breaking of Eggs that rare and remarkable achievement: a novel that meshes storytelling potency with historical erudition.

Taylor Antrim, Daily Beast, 22 October 2010
One of my favorite things about Jim Powell’s peripatetic novel of politics, identity, and ‘home’ is that I can’t think of a single writer to compare him to. Graham Greene? Chang-Rae Lee? Jane Gardam? This is for sure: Powell, 61, briefly the mailboy for the Beatles (!) and for much of his life an ad man for a London firm, doesn’t write like a kid with a freshly minted MFA – no spiky dialogue or resonant descriptions of angled sunlight. Instead we get the leisurely, urbane, yet oddly gripping narration of Feliks Zhukovski, a 61-year-old exCommunist Parisian bachelor who sees his political convictions fall apart through a cascading series of events in 1991.

Born in Poland before World War II, Feliks believes he was abandoned at an early age by his mother and brother and has let ideology serve as his surrogate family. No longer a cardcarrying Communist, he nonetheless stubbornly admires Stalin and overlooks his excesses. Having written tourist guides to the Eastern Bloc for decades (and flirted with espionage for the Soviets), Feliks suddenly finds himself in a new world. The Berlin Wall has fallen and his books, extolling the ‘economic miracle’ of East Germany, are antiquated. Happily, an American publishing house wants to buy the rights – less pleasant are the family secrets Feliks will uncover on a trip to the U.S., then Poland, then Germany. With each revelation – it would ruin the book to give them away – Feliks becomes less sure of the memories he has lived with for half a century, and increasingly undone.

Powell’s novel may be set in 1991 but his theme feels of the moment: Political certainties are blinkering; they leave us ill-equipped for irrationality, bumps in the road – life as we know it. I devoured these near 350 pages and, though the very end struck me as a too tidy, a bit pat, I nevertheless felt cheered by Feliks’ hard-won transformation.

Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune, 17 August 2010
Feliks Zhukovski, narrator of the engaging new novel The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell, spends most of his life in transit. Feliks is the author of a travel guide to the countries of Eastern Europe, an area of the world which, at the moment Feliks begins publishing in 1955, still staggers beneath the brutal, oppressive rule of what was then the Soviet Union. He is a man on the move, but not really. Because for all of his trips between his Paris apartment and places such as Budapest and Prague to update the guide, Feliks doesn’t budge. He’s frozen in the past, locked inside the memory of being abandoned by his mother as the Nazis advanced on Poland in 1939. Outward motion, inward stasis. If your lead character is emotionally stunted and you want to whip up an instant batch of irony, then you can’t go wrong by making that character a travel writer. It’s a can’t-miss metaphor. Like a good budget hotel for vacationers who are watching their pennies, it’s easy and accessible.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the technique, though, novels that employ it are distinctive and uncommonly good. What looks like cheap symbolism – travel writers using motion and change as a way to distract themselves from a rooted inner pain – is, in the hands of an accomplished novelist, a brilliantly effective strategy, an oblique but never obscure way of talking about love, loss and home. Thus The Breaking of Eggs joins We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver and The Accidental Tourist (1985) by Anne Tyler in featuring a protagonist who writes travel guides. Feliks sticks with Eastern Europe. Eva Khatchadourian, narrator of Shriver’s harrowing novel about mass murder in a high school, dreams up a series of budget-travel books dubbed ‘A Wing and A Prayer’. The travel guides written by Macon Leary, the hapless fellow at the heart of Tyler’s winsome novel, are aimed at stick-in-the-mud types who don’t want to leave their easy chairs but try to make the best of things when forced to go.

Feliks, like Macon, has a place to hang his hat but nowhere to rest his soul. ‘I simply had no concept of home,’ Feliks confesses. ‘The more I thought about that simple word ‘home’ the more complicated it became for me.’ And then in 1991, with the Berlin Wall turned into a pile of rubble, everything changes. Feliks decides he will try to find his brother, Woody, from whom he was separated in the tumultuous early years of World War II, when Poland was caught between the evil of Hitler and the evil of Stalin. The journey sends Feliks both backward and forward – backward into the remembrance of a sorrowful past, forward into an unknown future.

The Breaking of Eggs is a story of great emotional depth, told in a clear-eyed, straightforward style. It revisits some of the most tragic events of the 20th century. What keeps it from being offputtingly grim and solemn, however, is the voice of Feliks: fussy, funny, erudite, arrogant, selfdeluding and yet somehow, at long last, capable of change.

… Feliks, Eva and Macon aren’t just travelers. And they’re not just writers. They are travel writers – something much greater than the sum of the two parts. ‘This frenetic activity,’ says Feliks, ‘all this running around from country to country, had disguised a gaping hollow at the center of my life. I had no idea how I would fill it, but I felt that I needed to try.’ His efforts prove that no matter what it says on the ticket, all journeys are round trips. We end where we began – a bit bedraggled, perhaps, and minus a suitcase or two, but usually wiser, stronger, better.

John McFarland, Shelf Awareness, 19 July 2010
Feliks Zhukovski has lived in the same Paris apartment for decades without really knowing the landlady who lives across the hall. He has written and published an annual tourist guidebook to the countries of the Eastern Bloc for as many years as he has lived in that apartment. His daily life has been admirably predictable, the same year in and year out. In Jim Powell’s thoroughly engaging debut novel, we meet Feliks at the beginning of 1991, when the U.S.S.R. has collapsed, the Berlin Wall has been rubble for more than a year and a wave of change is sweeping former Eastern Bloc countries. At the age of 61, Feliks realizes in shock, ‘For my whole adult life I had subscribed to an ideology that advocated change radical change, as the solution to society’s problems. Yet I did not welcome change in my own life. I resisted it.’

One shock after another will greet Feliks in 1991 as he comes to know himself and his history more fully. He was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1930 and lived there until August 1939, when his mother sent him and his brother to stay with an aunt in Switzerland; after World War II, he relocated to France and eventually became a French citizen. Aside from those objective facts and his lapsed membership in the Communist Party, he is undefined and adrift in a landscape demanding new definitions and focus. Can he remain frozen in a past quickly vanishing?

As it turns out, Feliks’s journey through 1991 is very complicated (in a supremely satisfying way) and overflows with people who challenge his previous assumptions. Feliks might fight new knowledge and his need to adjust at every step of the way, but slowly he sees that he was very wrong at the time he left Switzerland for France to think that ‘unlike other people I had no history, that here I was aged 17 starting life altogether afresh with no home, no family and no past.’ He gradually learns to listen and to ‘hear’ he finds that he had willed himself into historical denial and shares more with the people around him than he ever knew. Everyone coming out of the war, it appears, adopted a personal survival strategy, whether it was denial, self-deception or a disciplined reticence. His landlady, in a rare revealing moment confides ‘We still cannot talk about these things here. We never will. When my generation dies all this will die with us.’ Such confidences about being weighed down by history are not offered lightly; they are lifelines thrown out to those in need to move forward with life after having endured the unbearable.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 2010
The life of Feliks Zhukovski so far has been determined by the decisions of other people or the events of history and he has responded passively to a pushy fate for the whole 60 years of his life. Sent in the nick of time out of his native Poland by his Jewish mother to a reluctant aunt and uncle in Switzerland in 1939, the nine-year-old Feliks has lost all track of his family and the end of World War II finds him a young man alone in Paris, committed to the Communist Party.

In 1991, Feliks is 60 and for decades he has been writing a travel guide to the Eastern Bloc countries. But now the Berlin Wall is down, the Iron Curtain is pulled aside and eastern Europe has opened up to the world. Feliks must decide what to do about his one-man business, and the subsequent events lead to surprising discoveries.

Many of his beliefs, about his family and politics, have been based on misunderstandings or lack of information, and the foundation of his life begins to crumble as he discovers more about what really happened in the war and opens up to the affection and goodwill of the people around him. It’s harrowing stuff leavened by clever, gentle humour, usually at Feliks’s expense.

The hinge of the novel is a letter from his long-dead mother, whom he last saw when he was nine and never forgave for sending him away. The letter has been entrusted to a friend and sheds new light on all that went before. Some of the best novels concern individuals pushed and pulled by history but this makes more explicit than most the direct relationship between world events and individual fates. It’s an intriguing, skilfully written and wholly enjoyable novel, full of humour and ideas.

Thomas Gaughan, Booklist Magazine, 15 April 2010
Powell’s delightful debut novel is by turns winsome and moving. Feliks is an indelible character, and the people who enter his life tell remarkable stories of the suffering that fascism and communism visited on Europe. The Breaking of Eggs is a book that thoughtful readers won’t soon forget.

Larry Thornberry, American Spectator, 27 July 2010
This impressive first novel is part coming of age story and part spy story, with a primer on 20th century European history thrown in. History at the most personal, small-picture level. It’s also about redemption, second chances, and what home means… A strength of the novel is that it sheds light on the great themes and tragedies of the 20th century, especially the almost unfathomable horror that was World War II, in a very personal way through the life of one family.

Toni Whitmont, Booktopia, 1 June 2010
The year is 1991 and 61-year-old Feliks Zhukovski, an expatriate Pole who lives in Paris, finds himself in a crumbling world. Having escaped the war and joined the Communist party in France, he has lived his life virtually alone, eking out a living with his travel guides to eastern bloc countries, countries which reflect his own hopes and ideals. Now the unthinkable has happened. The Berlin Wall has come down, and an American company wants to take over and modernize his precious publications.

So what is it like to look around and suddenly discover that everything that you once held dear and true is suddenly dissolving? This is a question that vast numbers of people must have wrestled with in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The question leads Zhukovski to revisit his past, to re-evaluate the circumstances under which his mother sent him and his brother away in August of 1939, to re-engage with a woman who at one time held the secret to a life of shared happiness, to pick apart his long held beliefs about life, love, politics and well, everything.

Powell’s special talent is to shrink major themes of the twentieth century to the canvas of just one figure, for through Zhukovski we see history writ small. At the same time, we get an exploration of the nature of connection, home, and exile. High-minded stuff but don’t be put off. This novel is not polemic. These questions bubble up through the very engaging story of Zhukovski’s shedding of his past.

Its publishers are likening The Breaking of Eggs to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with touches of the film ‘Goodbye Lenin’. Fair enough. Bernard Schlink’s The Reader gets a mention too. It put me in mind of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day . Be that as it may, The Breaking of Eggs is really all its own. It is going to appeal to fans of both commercial and literary fiction and we are all going to be hearing a lot more about it. And if you are in a reading group – look no further. It will keep the discussion going for hours!

Keris Nine, Amazon.com, 10 May 2010
What is most extraordinary about Jim Powell’s novel is not just its ambition, but the modest means through which The Breaking of Eggs covers that vast range of human experience that defines the world we live in today. It’s through the simple yet contradictory character of Feliks Zhukovski that Powell finds the perfect perspective to view the modern world, consider how we have arrived there and contemplate where we are likely to go. A 61 year-old man of Polish origin living in Paris in 1991, Feliks has witnessed the seismic changes that have come about after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fall of Soviet bloc Communism, but while the world moves on and takes it all in its stride, Feliks finds it much harder to redefine himself and his place within this new world.

Having made a modest living as a travel writer and publisher of a guide to eastern bloc countries, the changes are difficult enough to accept for a man with leftist leanings who was once a member of the Communist party, but with the sudden new interest that there now is in his guides, Feliks also has to consider an offer for them made by an imperialist capitalist business from America. Feliks however takes the opportunity of a meeting to discuss the sale in New York to look for his older half-brother Woodrow, from whom he was separated from during the war. Confronting issues that are antithetical to everything he believes in comes as something of a shock to the system, but the organisation of the trip to America brings to light several revelations about his past that force Feliks, at this late stage in his life, to re-evaluate those former fundamental certainties and ideals that have defined his existence.

Although it deals with coming to terms with the past, in many ways The Breaking of Eggs is more about the world we live in today, taking a look at the bigger picture of the impact of the Second World War and the Cold War, but doing so through small intimate stories of people who lived through the period. Considering the respective positions of life as it is lived in America, in western Europe and in the former Eastern Bloc, each of those personal human experiences is very different, but each of them have come to define who those people are and have consequently shaped the world we see around us today. The novel ambitiously takes in all these perspectives and tries to reconcile them, or at least put them into a context where the distortions of personal experience and blind belief in imperfect ideologies can be reconsidered and put in their rightful place, without diminishing their importance. It may not be possible to build a perfect society without the breaking of some eggs, but it’s important that those sacrifices that have been made in flawed attempts are acknowledged and are not allowed to be shamefully hidden away.