There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Anna Summers

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.

Khrushchyovka is an unofficial name of a type of low-cost, concrete-paneled or brick three- to five-storied apartment building which was developed in the Soviet Union during the early 1960s, during the time its namesake Nikita Khrushchev directed the Soviet government.

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.”

Advertisements

36 comments

  1. What an interesting collection of stories. The setups sound very unusual for fiction but perhaps more common in real life. As you said: “The rom-com meet up isn’t common, and Petrushevskaya forces readers to acknowledge that.” I don’t know if I would want to read this book–some of these stories might stir my anxiety–but I might.

  2. This sounds like maybe a worthwhile effort that needed a bit of polishing before it came out to the readers. Then again, maybe it’s supposed to be raw, raw-edged and unsettling, like the lives of the characters. I like books that place me in people’s very other lives, but it sounds like it’s easy to lose track or get frustrated more than it is to learn what people’s lives there are like. I have seen this mentioned elsewhere so it’s useful to have a review (that means I probably won’t pick it up if I see it – thank you!).

    • The weird thing is Anna Summers selected these stories to be in this collection, which means not only did a publisher release them into the world, and second set of eyes praised them. I’d like to read more contemporary Russian fiction, but I don’t know where to stick my toes in. I don’t want to read historical fiction. I want to hear the voice of people today. Zarina Zabrisky does that for me, but she only publishers a single long short story every so often.

  3. A shame this didn’t seem to live up to its full potential. I’m still keen to try some more of her work at some point though. Perhaps her novellas will feel a little more developed and satisfying.

  4. This sounds really intriguing, but I know what you mean about stories that feel unfinished – I felt that way about some of Karen Russell’s earlier work, though I love her later stuff.

  5. When I saw the photo of that concrete apartment building and immediately thought Czech Republic as we inherited this ‘style’ from that era as well. I grew up in one of those apartments. 😊

    Shame the stories didn’t deliver despite their attention grabbing titles. I really was initially quite intrigued but that lack of polish would probably get on my nerves.

    • It seemed like less a lack of polish and more a lack of finish. It seems like Petrushevskaya wants a meaningful story, but she’s not making the connections in a way that speak to readers. It’s not just me; loads of people note this about her writing.

      What was it like growing up in one of those apartments, if I may ask? Did you have relatives who wanted to steal you spot, like Petrushevskaya says the Russians did to each other?

      • Making a note about the author, thank you!

        I remember a high degree of paranoia – these apartments are known for having really thin walls – during communism people were constantly spying on each other. My mum would constantly whisper and I sometimes even now catch myself whispering as it did leave a trace. To my knowledge, there were no relatives wanting to steal our spot though! 😊

        • Thank you for sharing, Vera! I’ve read a number of books in which people whisper because they fear their neighbors so deeply. I’ve read this in nonfiction and the fiction inspired by real life, especially Soviet Russia. I’m sorry you had to be afraid.

  6. I quite like the idea of the first collection of stories, about the couples with unusual stories, but the rest of it sounds too dark for me. This is a great review though – I feel like I have a really clear sense of the book.

    • That’s true! I love weird meeting stories! Petrushevskaya does those well! And she captures those weird feelings of really wanting someone who maybe doesn’t appear to offer much up front in a way that I recognize.

    • I’m not sure if the relationships got more romantic as time went on, but the beginnings were certainly unromantic!

      Do you ever read short story collections, or is that not your happy place?

      • I don’t like short stories, you’re just getting to know the protagonists and they’re gone, but will sometimes read them because I like the author’s novels.

  7. Oh my, these do sound bleak. The concrete houses, the loads of kids, the woman who keeps her kids up to guilt her spouse-brutal!!!

    For some reason the sound of this book does fascinate me to though, the more I learn about Russia, the more I’m intrigued (and frightened) of it. I also love your ‘blink blink’ addition, I know exactly what you mean, and that gesture conveys it perfectly! Well done.

    • LOL, thanks, Anne. I am a *blink blink* sort of person in real life. I also make this face a lot: 😐

      It’s interesting to me how similar stories of hard time are. In the book I read earlier this year about North Korea, people envied small cement block apartments there, too. Otherwise, they would end up in shacks.

      I do admire the way the woman with the kids was basically saying, if you’re going to sleep around, we’re going to make you miserable.

  8. I love the concept – short stories set in these cramped, crowded apartments, very typical of Communist countries. Too bad it falls short in execution. Generally, I like short story collections so I’m still a bit tempted by this one.

  9. Great review! Like you I was drawn to the title but having read your review I am not sure it would be the book for me as I agree with your assessment on Link’s short stories (which I want to love but just don’t).

  10. I hadn’t heard of this author until a librarian book buddy said she was going to order some. The titles are very intriguing and your review really has me curious about trying some of this author’s work. You said what lost you by the end, but I’ll admit the quirkiness with the old man made me laugh. I don’t know why older people in stories always make me even more curious. You’ve shared enough to raise my awareness, and as soon as this comment is posted, I’m going to look at the library to see if they have some.

    • If you do read and review this collection, I’ll look forward to that review. I’m starting to realize that you and I look at books entirely differently from one another, and I love that. You see things I absolutely miss.

      • Isn’t it great? That is one reason I really like discussing books, and this helps us to do that, doesn’t it? I will be sure to share when I get a copy. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t but I could probably do an ILL. I also asked today when I picked up a book about book sales and donations. They don’t but neighboring county libraries do if I remember correctly (at least sales, I’ve been to several book sales at those libraries).

        • That’s weird that your library doesn’t do book sales or donations. Then again, people might just bring in their pulp novels that cost $5.99 brand new and might be in terrible shape (and also not the greatest literature).

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s