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THE LINE by Olga Grushin


by Olga Grushin

Pub Date: April 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-399-15616-8
Publisher: Marian Wood/Putnam

The line of the title serves as bold metaphor in this earnest successor to The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006).

It’s a literal waiting line that forms outside a kiosk which, rumor has it, offers whatever the hopeful patrons who enter it each day, enduring numerous confusions and delays, most desire. Some declare that there are tickets on sale there, to a forthcoming concert at which émigré composer Igor Selinsky (a fictional surrogate for 20th-century master Stravinsky) will conduct a performance of his final symphony. This possibility excites the interest of Anna, a compassionate schoolteacher who wants the ticket for her frail, aged mother, a one-time famous ballerina; Anna’s husband Sergei, a devoted musician unhappily underemployed as a tuba player in a nondescript marching band; and their teenaged son Alexander, a budding pragmatist who plots ways of escaping from his family’s suffocating environment—a city much like Moscow, nearly 40 years after “the Change” (known historically as the Thaw) that promised Russian citizens increased freedom and opportunity. The combination of these elements produces a frustrating mixture: excessive recourse to scenes in which characters keep meeting in line, forming both fruitful and damaging new relationships, chagrined to realize they’re animals subjected to herding and confinement. This is balanced and ameliorated by sharp characterizations of the four principal characters, trenchant analysis of the extremes of behavior to which they’re driven, and powerful evocations of an imprisoning atmosphere that stifles all forms of creativity and self-expression. Virtually every time Grushin’s characters leave the line, connecting with their memories, their ambitions or their relationships with others, the novel quickens to life. Unfortunately, the image of the line usurps the reader’s concentration, forcing the author to keep re-establishing these people’s claims on our attention.

By no means a negligible book, but something of a disappointment coming from the gifted Grushin.