Okay, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s titles certainly get your attention. I own this book as well as There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Anna Summers, who translated and selected the stories to go in this collection, begins the book with an introduction. In it, she explains Russian housing: “concrete buildings made of one-, two-, and three-room apartments that often housed several generations of Russians. It is in these small, overcrowded, uniform, much-coveted units that Petrushevskaya’s love stories take place” (emphasis mine). Because Russia is such a large place with complicated history, I appreciated the note about housing to get my brain in the right place for the stories.
Section one, THE MURKY FATE, contains five stories about couples meeting. Typically, people’s feelings are, in fact, murky. One woman is so lonely that she pays a slovenly married co-worker to sleep with her. Afterward, she tells people she has a boyfriend and starts to have feelings not so much for him, but for feeling. In another story, an unmarried thirty-five-year-old teacher tries to find solace in a cabin in the woods, but older women keep trying to set him up with “spinsters” in their families. He resists until he feels lost without one woman who was pushed on him for so long. I like that the stories are not common beginnings to romance. The rom-com meet up isn’t common, and Petrushevskaya forces readers to acknowledge that.
The next section, HALLELUJAH, FAMILY!, is about pregnancy and infants. No one expects these pregnancies, whether in a marriage or one-night-stand situation. One wife knows her husband won’t come home before 11:00PM, so she keeps all of their children awake until he arrives, causing a chaotic, miserable household in order to guilt her spouse. In another, co-workers have a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy, which neither acknowledge, but they still co-parent nonetheless. I didn’t like this section as well as the previous, mainly because there were so many characters in each small story. However, I do appreciate stories that don’t romanticize parenting for those who find themselves unwillingly in the role.
The third section is MY LITTLE ONE, and this is where things got confusing enough that I started to lose interest. Although this seemed like a section about pregnancy again, it wasn’t. Then, I noticed the stories all featured a teen girl, until the last one didn’t. A story started in one place — like a grumpy old homeless man tricking people out of resources — and ended in another. Like how he, in his 50s, starts a relationship with a woman in her 70s who believes he is her dead son. *Blink. Blink.* How we got there is unclear, and I wondered if there was a hiccup in the translation or some cultural context I didn’t get. Russia is a big, strange place.
Lastly, Petrushevskaya concludes with A HAPPY ENDING. As you can guess from the title of the book, no one gets a happy ending. This section is filled with stories of miserable love: a school girl is tortured by the boy on whom she has a crush; an office worker has a gentleman friend, but discovers he is her co-worker’s schizophrenic husband; a miserable married woman secures an apartment of her own to escape her cruel son and his family and her husband, who gave her an STD and tells everyone she’s a “venereal old hag.” In general, these stories were well told, though one made my eyes cross with confusion and boredom. I also seethed when Petrushevskaya used the laziest method to indicate someone is a bad person: referring to a woman as “fat wife.”
Overall, I think the strongest part of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s collection is her eye-catching title. I do like how she writes as if these are oral fairy tales (“there once was. . .”). Her stories capture your interest, but don’t all come together. Her writing reminds me of Kelly Link’s (whose stories feel unfinished and ought to be novellas), and it’s not surprising that Link blurbed the book, calling Petrushevskaya “a master of the short story form.”