We’ve all had a teacher or two who stand out in our formative years as going above and beyond, making the experience of education into something truly extraordinary. When we remember the debt of gratitude we owe these individuals, it’s easy to imagine why bestselling author Alyson Richman might write a novel like The Secret of Clouds—a book which Richman calls her “love letter to teachers.”
When speaking with Richman about her career, which amounts to no less than seven internationally bestselling novels, translated into a total of thirty languages, and an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of The Lost Wife, the role her parents played in shaping the unique Richman’s perspective, is immediately apparent. This, it should be noted, is the unique view of the world which has allowed Richman to create such rich and vibrant worlds on the page, worlds described as ‘beautiful and heartfelt,’ ‘evocative’, ‘riveting,’ and ‘captivating,’ by everyone from New York Times bestselling authors such as Kristin Hannah and John Lescroart, to publications such as The Library Journal and InStyle.
Richman’s father was an electrical engineer, who taught her to understand things by taking them apart and putting them back together. Her mother, on the other hand, was an artist, who would take her daughter to museums and point out how brush strokes and distance effect the image; how, when one looks at a sculpture, something new is revealed from every angle. Richman says she writes in these terms, and notes that her parents respective outlooks led to her own intellectual curiosity as well as a vivid, visual life. This makes total sense when you look at Richman’s body of work: each novel is set in a different country, during a different time period (from Paris in World War II, to pre-war Prague, to Chile under Pinochet) featuring and exploring different creative processes and famous creatives (Richman has tackled everyone from Van Gogh to The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.)
While her parents were without doubt the teachers who moulded Richman into the fascinating and versatile author she is today, it was another teacher entirely who inspired the plot of her latest novel, The Secret of Clouds.
Richman has a friend who teaches third grade, and every year for the past twenty or so years, she has assigned her class the same project: to write a letter to their eighteen-year-old future selves, outlining their hopes and dreams; a letter from the past, a message for the future. She takes on the responsibility of keeping these letters until the children reach high school graduation, at which time she mails them to the graduates. Understandably, Richman was blown away when she learned of her friend’s foresight in creating these written time capsules for her students, and wanted to write a story that honored not only teachers’ commitment to the children in their classes, but their ability to create a permanent print of someone’s childhood. But Richman also wondered: had any one instance or student stood out in the two decades her friend had been running this project?
The answer…was yes.
Richman’s ‘love letter to teachers’ is an ode to humanity, to the transformative bond and lasting impact a truly great teacher can have on a student, on a family, on a community. The Secret of Clouds begins in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, following a young couple. Katya, a rising ballerina, and graduate student Sasha fall in love shortly before a devastating tragedy befalls their nation. Later, after they have emigrated to the United States, their son Yuri is born with a rare health condition which prevents him from attending school. Enter Maggie, a dedicated teacher who, despite her own past trauma, agrees to tutor Yuri at home. Teacher and student form a powerful bond, with Yuri’s passion and curiosity inspiring Maggie to take steps to improving her own life, however “she’ll never realize just how strong Yuri has made her—until she needs that strength the most.”
Though not set in the past as Richman’s previous novels have been, fans of Richman will be pleased to learn that The Secret of Clouds still has history woven through it; the Chernobyl disaster sees Yuri as one of the many children born years later with devastating defects as a result of the radiation, while creative themes are explored through Maggie’s teaching abilities, and Katya’s past as a dancer in Kiev’s National Theater. PopSugar’s glowing review assures readers that “Richman’s first foray into a contemporary story will make you forget about the past,” while the Washington Independent Review of Books calls The Secret of Clouds “An exquisite story,” noting that “Richman’s great strength in designing the emotional ebb and flow of her engaging narrative should win accolades and a heap of new readers.” Booklist also comments that The Secret of Clouds “is tailor-made for book groups.”
So what are you waiting for? In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, get your copy of what New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff calls Alyson Richman’s ‘unforgettable gift of a book’ The Secret of Clouds, and remember those in your life who have taught you the most.