There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
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 Night, Chocolates with Liqueur (inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”), 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.
Review: This review is for the English translation of a Russian novella collection.
This is the second Ludmilla Petrushevskaya book I’ve read, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t understand what’s great about her writing. These three novellas are intriguing enough that I finished them, but I can’t say I liked them or enjoyed the reading experience. They’re just so rambley! It’s infuriating.
The first novella, The Time Is Night, is written stream-of-consciousness style. The main character is a poet who seems to hate the women in her family. She put her mother in an old folks’ home and doesn’t get along with her daughter or granddaughters. However, she’d do anything for her grandson and her criminal son. (Even though she kind of hates them, too?) She’s basically an all-around horrible person. She’s been so beaten down by living in constant poverty that she’s mostly given up on life. The stream-of-consciousness writing style makes the story hard to follow. It jumps around in time without warning and rambles on for over 100 pages. The characters are mildly interesting because they’re all horrible, but there isn’t a plot. This is my least-favorite novella in the book.
I had slightly better luck with Chocolates with Liqueur. It’s mostly linear, so it’s easier to understand. It stars a father who feeds poisoned chocolates to his wife and children, but they fail to die. What follows is a weird and suspenseful tale of a woman trying to protect her children from her psychotic husband. This is my favorite story in the collection, but I didn’t love it. I have a hard time with Petrushevskaya’s writing style. There’s so much distance between the characters and the reader that I was never able to connect with the characters. I just didn’t care about them.
The ending of the final story, Among Friends, caught me off-guard. This novella is about a group of friends (or, more accurately, frenemies). The story covers a long stretch of time and shows how relationships change as people get older. Near the end of the story, one of the friends is diagnosed with a deadly illness. She goes to great lengths to ensure that her friends will care for her son if she dies. Honestly, I considered giving up on this novella. Similar to the first story, it rambles. I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere or building to anything. The ending is great, but getting to the end was a struggle.
My favorite part of the book is the introduction. The translator gives background information that is very helpful for readers who are not familiar with life in Soviet Russia. Writing these stories could have gotten Petrushevskaya in trouble with her country’s government because they show Russians in a negative light. Her characters are poor, overworked, starving, mentally ill people who live in crowded communal apartments. The stories are full of hopelessness and casual violence. I appreciate the bravery it took for Petrushevskaya to show her country in an honest way, but this book wasn’t for me.