Back in 2010, I ended my review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by saying I expected to start seeing more translations of her work in English “very soon.” So I was pretty excited this past January when I first read about the release of There Once Was a Woman Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories. This is what I’d been waiting for.
Things started out well enough. Translator Anna Summers’s brief introduction reminded me of everything I’d loved about Scary Fairy Tales and set the stage for Petrushevskaya’s particular brand of Love Stories, constrained and distorted by the cramped spaces of communal Soviet living. The first story, “A Murky Fate,” packed so much embarrassment and desperation into just four pages that I felt a little bad about reading it while sitting next to someone on the bus.
As I read further into the collection, though, I started feeling a little disappointed. While these stories are compact and dark, just like I expected, and while there are definitely some stand outs, like “A Murky Fate,” “Two Deities,” and “Hallelujah, Family!”, there’s also a lot of repetition here, a lot of people being unhappy in the same ways and turning to the same outlets with the same results. No one piece struck me as a total let down, but as a collection, Love Stories lacks the endless inventiveness that made Scary Fairy Tales so memorable.
My feelings about the collection as a whole were best captured in my reaction to the final story, “A Happy Ending.” Polina, like many of Petrushevskaya’s protagonists in Love Stories, doesn’t have a lot going for her. She’s stuck in a hateful marriage with a man who once gave her gonorrhea. The only thing keeping her and Semyon together is a joint suspicion of their son’s attempts to take over their two-room apartment with his own family.
This is a typical premise for the collection: families confined to close quarters forging alliances of convenience against shared alienation or oppression. Of course, life can’t be perfect all the time, so whenever their son isn’t actively trying to swindle them out of their allotted living space, Polina and Semyon have to deal with their feelings for each other.
That’s where I came across a line that cemented my feelings for the book, in a description of their recovery rituals after fighting:
After each screaming match they would crawl into their respective lairs, shaking with unspent tears, to pop heart pills; Polina would also call her college friend Marina to complain about Semyon and in exchange listen, bored to death, to Marina’s complaints about her middle-aged daughter.
There’s something cheeky about sneaking in the phrase “bored to death” here. We are, after all, in the same position as Polina listening to Maria, or vice versa. The story tacitly acknowledges there is something boring about listening to someone else’s familial troubles over and over again, especially when they are the same troubles over and over again.
In the context of the story, that “bored to death” is an indictment of our limited capacity for empathy and a dramatization of our ability to revel in our own problems, as if they were so much more important than other people’s. In the context of the collection, that “bored to death” is a kind of admission that the intricate internal mechanics of a lot of familial strife can be mind-numbing. My favorite story here, “Hallelujah, Family!” even jibes at this, using a numbered structure and referring back to itself to the help the reader keep the generations straight.
I still think Petrushevskaya’s work is worth your time, but I wouldn’t call this selection of stories required reading. If you can find these pieces in singular elsewhere, you might enjoy them more than I did packed all together. (“Young Berries” appeared in the Paris Review last summer.) Keep an eye out for translations of her novellas, Time: Night and The Number One. Until then, unless her next book was something you were really looking forward to, you can probably pass on this one.