A wide-ranging portrait of Soviet and pre-Soviet society and history as seen by an elderly matriarch living on the shores of the Crimean Sea. The second English-language appearance from the celebrated Russian geneticist-turned-novelist (The Funeral Party, 2001).
Although it weighs in at just over 300 pages, the story has a Tolstoyan heft to it, not only in its seriousness but in the dizzying array of characters who wander in and out. The heart of the tale is Medea Georgievna Sinoply Mendez, now (in the 1970s) a widow of more than 20 years. Born in the 1890s to a Greek family that had settled many generations earlier in a Crimean village, Medea was a freethinking young woman who became enamored of Communism long before the 1917 revolution. Her late husband Samuel Mendez, a Jew who became one of the first Party members in Russia, was an officer in a special detachment of the Red Army. Although he left Medea childless, she had a large extended family and many friends, and her house on the Crimean is always crowded now with visitors during the summer holiday season. There is Medea’s childhood playmate Elena, who married Medea’s brother: She came from a wealthy Armenian family, and her father supported Medea and her 12 brothers and sisters after both of their parents died young. Elena’s son Georgii is also a summer visitor. Then there is Medea’s younger sister Alexandra, who married Ivan Isaevich and had a daughter they named Nike, a great favorite of Medea’s. Nike is inseparable from her childhood friend Masha, who grew up to marry Valerii Butonov, a famous athlete and circus performer who became a physician. This is a story of recollection, unfolding backwards as the arrival of Medea’s guests recalls events long past but far from forgotten.
As fascinating and tangled as an old woman’s fireside reminiscences: a jumbled mosaic of memories folded into the history of an age—striking, but badly out of focus.