A headshot of Adams, a smiling white woman, with the cover of her book, "The Nesting Dolls."
Alina Adams' newest novel is "The Nesting Dolls." (Photo/Andrea Echevarria)

Former San Franciscan recasts Russian Jewish family stories in ‘Nesting Dolls’

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Alina Sivorinovsky Wickham, who publishes under the nom de plume Alina Adams, may be considered a writer of all trades. She has penned mysteries centered on the world of figure skating, romance fiction set in early 1800s Great Britain, and soap opera-based novels that were tie-ins to daytime dramas.

Based in New York, Sivorinovsky Wickham, who grew up in San Francisco from the age of 7 after emigrating from Odessa with her family in 1977, also blogs about the state of primary and secondary school education under her legal name.

As of this month, Sivorinovsky Wickham, 50, can rightfully stake her claim to another genre: literary fiction. She is the author of “The Nesting Dolls,” a just-released novel that spans nearly nine decades, two continents and the lives of five generations of Russian Jewish women.

Although it is not autobiographical in nature, “The Nesting Dolls” is as close as she has come to writing about the experiences of those nearest and dearest to her.

“I have been writing books with secretly Jewish themes for years,” she told J. “But this will be my first openly Jewish novel.”

Much of the book, she said, is composed of “bits and pieces from family lore.”

By her own admission, Sivorinovsky Wickham was a nosy, inquisitive child who hid under the table, or camouflaged herself in the background, to remain in earshot of adult stories that were considered off-limits to impressionable youngsters.

The details from these personal stories are at the core of “Nesting Dolls.” They include a harrowing train ride from Odessa, in the western part of the former Soviet Union, to Siberian exile in the east, depicted in the book as a nightmarish and gruesome journey. The author also focuses attention on “the Jewish problem” of being excluded from the best jobs and universities by anti-Semitic Soviet authorities.

The fallout from life under a totalitarian regime is not given short shrift, either.

“There were Jews in Odessa who were very excited that the Germans were coming,” said Sivorinovsky Wickham, referring to a character in the novel who looks forward to the 1941 Nazi invasion of Odessa because he thinks nothing could be more barbarous and heinous than Soviet life under Stalin.

black and white photo of a slim white man on a beach holding a toddler
The author as a baby with her father, Genrikh Sivorinovsky, on a beach in Odessa, 1971.

Even decades after the characters in “The Nesting Dolls” have left their homeland for the idylls of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a hub for Soviet Jewish émigrés, the trauma of their experiences under a dictatorship can be felt. In a wry yet searing passage about an American classroom assignment, the older characters revert to a chapter from their Soviet playbook — in this case, about the importance of not speaking one’s mind. They urge the youngest family member, a gifted high school student, to rewrite her paper about the novel “The Catcher in the Rye” to give the teacher “what she wants … [so that] she will leave you alone. You do not want to get a reputation for troublemaking.”

Sivorinovsky Wickham, an alumna of the Brandeis School, Lowell High School and San Francisco State University, where she earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in broadcast communications, said “The Nesting Dolls” had been percolating for decades. More than 20 years ago, while she was working in television as a writer and producer, she outlined the first part of what was to become the novel.

The remainder of “Nesting Dolls” was completed years later, long after she had given up television for a more sedentary professional life as a full-time writer and a stable home life. Her household in New York City includes a husband and three children: a 21-year-old college student and two teenagers. Her parents still live in San Francisco.

“We bring diversity by just entering the room,” quipped Sivorinovsky Wickham, whose husband is African American. “We are interracial, interfaith and intercultural,” she said, “but my three kids are being raised as Jewish.”

The youngest, a 13-year-old daughter, attends a Jewish day school in New York.

Sivorinovsky Wickham said she adopted her “goyishe” pen name 25 years ago when she published her first book, “The Fictitious Marquis,” a romance novel set during Regency England, a relatively brief historical period in which Jane Austen’s novels are set.

“For some reason, ‘Sivorinovsky’ just didn’t scream Regency England,” she said. “My editor chose Adams because she liked the idea of it coming early in the alphabet.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, events related to the publication of “The Nesting Dolls” have been modified. A virtual book launch will take place on July 14 at 3:30 p.m. PST  with the New York independent bookstore Shakespeare & Co. For other upcoming book events, visit alinaadams.com.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.