Ulli is a young woman squatting in a dismal, empty Berlin apartment, one year after the WWII has ended, when she meets two American soldiers. The novel follows the trio through the next six decades of their lives?from Berlin to postwar Manhattan, 1960s Los Angeles, and contemporary Morocco.
...[a] radiant new novel ... Signaling from the start that it will give nonstop beauty and insight, the novel repays close attention with what the best fiction can bestow: a larger, deeper understanding of the spinning world. Reminiscent at times of the work of poet/novelist Anne Michaels, every word here feels set down with care and fierce conscience. The resulting narrative glows as if distilled ... Winter Kept Us Warm is deeply concerned with what makes a family, with inevitable, unanswerable loss, with the intricacies of language and time; love and war, friendship, the life of art and the imagination, and always (borrowing from Yeats) the quest of the 'pilgrim soul.' In other words, just about everything that ever mattered. The novel’s own quest is one in which we can happily lose — and find — ourselves.
This kind of drama is quiet and subtle, but Raeff knows how to wield her words in this space, and makes small pronouncements devastating ... Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the novel is how quiet it is, and how much respectful space Raeff allows her characters. While their inner thoughts and feelings are sometimes conveyed in a sentence or two, as above, Raeff largely documents these without dwelling there. This isn't a book obsessed with its people's thoughts, and there are no long paragraphs of internal monologues. Instead, these characters are in the thick of their lives, and Raeff shows us their fullness in quick sketches, the way a skilled artist may convey movement and attitude with only a few penciled lines.
Raeff’s latest speaks to the present. There’s nothing dated or quaint about the three individuals around which she centers her story, and the lack of period embroidery — no archaic brand names, beauty rituals, or descriptions of old-timey radios — keeps it streamlined. The characters don’t spend 304 pages pontificating about the nature of good and evil, but like anyone living through history they try to make sense of the world, one failure and one victory at a time ... In this author’s nimble hands, the struggle for love, safety, and meaning feels palpable as the reader watches each character scour various routes toward those ends, only some of which prove fruitful. Raeff’s great achievement is having assembled a cast so recognizably flawed that it’s easy to root empathetically for their contentment, even as she calls the potential for contentment into question by suggesting that inherent morality — human goodness — may be a lie we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night.