A literary historian feels drawn to a 19th-century wife and mother who sacrificed all for her man.
A driven academic, Jane Levitsky loves her infant daughter Maisie and husband Billy, but most of her intellectual and emotional energy flows toward her research into the 19th-century Russian novelist Grigory Karkov and his wife Masha. Even during childbirth, Jane’s thoughts drift to Masha, whose diaries fascinate Jane as much as Karkov’s novels. Jane gets a prestigious assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, where the eminent Karkov scholar Otto Sigelman has just retired. Increasingly obsessed with her research and chafing at her domestic responsibilities, Jane hires a graduate student she is advising to be Maisie’s live-in babysitter. Meanwhile, Sigelman, who still comes regularly to his office next to Jane’s, disparages her emphasis on Masha’s importance as Karkov’s muse, but Jane begins to suspect Grigory may have lifted entire diary entries from his wife. On a trip to Chicago’s Newberry Library, Jane finds a tantalizing letter from Masha that may shed new light on her role in Karkov’s writing. But before Jane can thoroughly digest the letter, Billy calls to say Maisie is in the hospital. Jane must abort her trip, and by the time she gets back to Chicago, the letter has disappeared. Sigelman has stolen it. She steals it back. She also discovers that taken-for-granted Billy has slept with the babysitter. He moves out. She tracks down Karkov’s last descendent, who gives her a startling manuscript: Before her death, Masha wrote a novel Grigory claimed as his own with her blessing. Jane realizes her own life is out of balance. In an improbably happy ending, Jane reconciles with Billy, has a second child and begins her book on Masha.
Pastan (This Side of Married, 2004) is strong on domestic despair, but the story of the woman who lets a man take the credit for her artistic achievement never comes to life.