Revealing the mundane horrors of the Russian family

No writer captures the mundane horrors of domestic despair quite like Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Taken together, her new collection of short stories, written between 1972 and 2008, reveals more about Russian family life in the 20th century than any non-fiction. Sober and grim, these seventeen stories eschew the supernatural twists and scary magical realism employed in her earlier, acclaimed collection, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.”

Yet they still read like fairy tales of a sort, small parables that occur in fetid apartments, soiled beds, dank doorways and kitchens stocked with moonshine, stale bread and bologna. When the stories end with a shred of hope, or even a numbing of the pain, the poignance can be hard to bear. Yet you keep reading. Surprising expressions of love and simple acts of loyalty stand out in relief, surrounded by the chaos of fear.
“In reality, life doesn’t stop with a wedding, heroic action, or with happy coincidence, as in films, when a certain person misses his boat (Titanic) or, as in this case, when an unmarried woman of thirty-five decides to keep the child born of a random tryst with a boy of twenty.”  This first line of “Two Deities,” one of her gentler and forgiving stories, remonstrates authors who tie narratives up in a classic bow.
Petrushevskaya's story, “A Happy Ending” is almost a tongue-in-check reaction to her disgust for the grand finale. Yet the story provides the closest she allows herself to a happy ending: Polina, a long-suffering caretaker, chooses her abusive spouse, compromised by illness, over an ordered loneliness.
Another story, “Give Her to Me,” arguably ends happily. Quirky and singular, it tells the rich and entertaining story of a skinny playwright living in desperate squalor; she writes a theatrical hit with a married man who gets her pregnant and she manages not to lose her baby. 
More here.


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