A masterly novella and six stories portray the depths of the Russian character, in a third English-language appearance by this geneticist-turned-novelist (Medea and Her Children, 2002, etc.).
The Moscow-based Ulitskaya has intimate access to characters in vastly different stations of Russian society. With the same bracing élan, she describes the most elevated, aged aristocrat (like the supremely supercilious grandmother Mour, in the story “Queen of Spades,” who speaks only of the famous men she has bedded while scorning her own family, and the lowly seamstress Sonechka, for whom the love of husband and daughter offers a reprieve from her peasant mediocrity. The mean-spirited crone Mour still orders her daughter, Anna, around, correcting the record of her fabulous life with famous lovers, always demanding something “elusive and indefinable” while her daughter, a doctor and grandmother herself, palliates and humors her mother’s latest caprice. Anna’s prosperous ex-husband arrives from South Africa, bringing unheard-of riches and turning the Moscow apartment upside down, yet the mother-daughter dynamic remains fatally rooted in place. The title novella’s Sonechka, on the other hand, is lifted from her dutiful work in the library—where she experiences a kind of religious ecstasy in reading Russian literature—by marriage to an older revolutionary artist, exiled in Paris but now returned to Soviet Russia to scrounge work designing theater sets. Despite the unimaginable cold and hunger the family must endure, Sonechka is happy in love; even when her elderly husband takes up with the canny Polish girl Jasia, and finds new life painting her, Sonechka acts nobly, shining with “a quiet joy of literary perfection.” In “Zurich,” Ulitskaya yanks her reader into the brutal exigencies of modern-day Russian economics as 30-year-old Lida, highly educated, enterprising and desperate to find a way out of her no-end poverty, strategically courts a Swiss businessman, vanquishes him and triumphs as the prosperous owner of a Zurich restaurant.
Ulitskaya brilliantly evokes these resilient characters, showing us the Russian soul as transformed throughout its complicated history.