Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (3/5)

13 Jan

I think this was the first Sepetys book I added to my TBR. I ended up reading Out of the Easy first and I’m still trying to figure out if I would have liked this more or less if I’d read it first. They were very different and I think I’m going to say Sepetys has gotten better. This was a fine first novel, but I think she had more to develop.

Cover image via Goodreads

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Other books by Sepetys reviewed on this blog:

Out of the Easy

Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I kept waiting for something more in this book. It was a horrible story of suffering and oppression, a lot like reading Survival in Auschwitz or visiting the Anne Frank museum. I had no idea that these things happened under Russian rule to the Baltic states. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read this book and learned more about human history and human cruelty that cannot be repeated. However, I read this story as a piece of fiction and on that front, it failed me. Lina and Jonas were very flat characters to me. There wasn’t much to their personalities. As such, I would have expected this to be a more plot-driven novel, but there wasn’t a lot of plot to it because the main theme was survival. The ending was a disappointment to me. After building so long, the last chapter/epilogue summed up everything very quickly. I didn’t feel it was an adequate ending for such a long build-up. It didn’t work for me as a story. Had it been a non-fiction memoir, I wouldn’t have had this problem, but I’m looking at it as fiction.

Their mother, Elena, was the most fleshed-out character to me. She did a lot of things that weren’t logical or in her best interest because she was a good person and wanted to set a good example for her children. It bothered me a little that she was always giving away food to others when I wanted her to keep herself and her children safe more than anything. But I realize she saw the humanity in everyone and saw survival as a group effort. She was a good character and went against the grain of the others which made her stand out.

Andrius was my favorite character. He had to go through a lot more emotionally than Lina and I was glad to know he somehow had a happy ending of some kind. Knowing that something had happened to his mother, I think he felt a sense of needing to be a man at a young age. At the same time, being a man would have meant he was separated from his mother and he had to submit to his mother’s care of him by pretending that he was mentally handicapped. When he thought he was out of the woods, his mother has to defile herself to save him. He was emasculated from a young age and I think his relationship with Lina was a saving grace for him when he needed it. There was a lot more depth to him than I felt in many other characters.

These characters were not easy to relate to. Their life situation was very extreme and the book focused on survival. I’m fortunate not to have ever lived in a survive-or-die situation. The things that tied them back to their earlier life like their father and Lina’s art were relatable, but they were such a small portion of the story that I found it harder to connect with the characters.

Ruta Sepetys
Image via the Between Shades of Gray website

The time in the Russian work camp was the most interesting to me. Getting to it was a bit repetitive and the Arctic camp was dreary and you knew it was going to go on forever. But the Russian camp was interesting. There was a power dynamic between the prisoners and the guards that had to be developed and overcome and I appreciated how it was played out. I liked Kretzsky’s development as well. He was clearly torn between pity and hate and fluctuated believably. I could see that he was trying to help and it bothered me at times that Lina couldn’t see it.

The last part, the Arctic camp, was a bit too much for me. It was so dreary and depressing that I disengaged from the story. When it didn’t have a definitive ending, leaving it up to the reader to imply years of suffering, I was even more frustrated. I felt like the book needed a different epilogue, a chance for Lina, Jonas, and Andrius to have a respite, a moment to appreciate what they finally got away from. The open ending didn’t sit well with me.

The audiobook was narrated by Emily Klein. I have mixed feelings about her narration. I thought she gave good voices to the mix of characters and expressed their concern, desperation, and compassion well. However, I think her portrayal of Lina was a bit mixed. Many times, she seemed younger than she was because of the innocence Klein put into her voice. I felt Jonas existed to show a loss of innocence but Lina was old enough that her transformation from child to a woman should have been less of an extreme but Klein made it seem very drastic.

I will always be impressed with human endurance. But when it happens at the hands of other humans, it’s a tragedy. This book shows us that the atrocities of World War II were more pervasive than we sometimes realize and it opened my eyes to a tragedy I didn’t know about. People will endure horrible things and their stories come to light to share these amazing and horrible stories but we have to be ready to listen and react to make sure they never happen again.

Writer’s Takeaway: The ending was my biggest issue with this book. I have a book that jumps twenty years in the end and I’m very careful to have an arc for the characters that’s mostly complete before the time jump. I didn’t feel that the characters in this book had an ending before the epilogue. Their story never ended and it didn’t feel like a complete book to me. I wish we’d gotten a scene of Jonas and Lina returning home or Lina and Andrius being reunited to give those characters closure because the book felt too open-ended to me.

Enjoyable but with an unsatisfying ending. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | ReadersCornerBlog
Between Shades of Gray | Sarah’s Soviet History Blog
Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys | Lorannkay
Week 3: Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys | Once Upon a Bookshelf
Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | A Page of Heaven


4 Responses to “Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (3/5)”

  1. jabrush1213 January 13, 2020 at 7:00 PM #

    Thank you for this review!


    • Sam January 13, 2020 at 8:40 PM #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dedra @ A Book Wanderer January 14, 2020 at 10:22 PM #

    I think I have to say I agree with you. I enjoyed Out of the Easy more, as well. But I did also read it first. Great review!


    • Sam January 15, 2020 at 9:54 AM #

      Thanks! I’ve heard her other books are great so I’ll have to keep trying. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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