Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

From Goodreads:
After her work was suppressed for many years, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit. Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is NightChocolates with Liqueur, and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.
I reviewed one of Petrushevskaya's other books (There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself) a year or two ago and had a hard time grasping the writing.  I wasn't sure if it was a cultural barrier or a translation issue, but I knew I wanted to try the author again.  Thankfully, I got my chance with this newest work in translation and I'm so grateful I gave the author a second try.  For some reason, these three novellas really clicked with me in a way that the short stories didn't initially.

First of all, these three stories completely delivered in terms of presenting a reader, even a reader as uneducated as myself, on the stark difficulties and bleak lives of Soviet-era Russia.  I was absolutely transported in terms of setting and mood throughout each story - I felt like a window was opened on a completely different reality than I've ever experienced and I got to get a taste of life in that time at that place.

The characters were also brilliantly drawn and produced a pretty wide spectrum of feeling, from sympathy to distaste, to revulsion.  I absolutely saw what the author was trying to do with each character in each story and she accomplished her goals with precision in terms of my being able to visualize each scene.

Entertainment Value
A huge theme running through each story, and from what I've gathered through all of Petrushevskaya's writing, is the utter bleakness of day to day live in the Soviet regime.  These are definitely not happy stories and the characters don't necessarily come out on top.  They can be hard to read because of that darkness.  I really got a lot out of comparing the darkness of Japanese short stories, which I've delved into a bit this year, with the bleakness of these Russian short stories.  The highlight for me was just how very Russian these stories feel compared to the eeriness of the Japanese stories.  While the outlook on life is somewhat similar, these stories delivered a less magical feel and concentrated more on the cold, bleak realities.

I highly recommend giving this one a try, particularly if you're interested in diversifying your reading to include works from other countries or works in translation.  This one is well done and provides a great look into a culture very different from our own.  It's well written and the stories and characters are captivating.

Thanks to Penguin for providing me with a copy to review!

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