"There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn't stop." That sentence, from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "A Murky Fate," encapsulates the desperately conflicted women who haunt her bittersweet stories. A woman in Moscow dresses up for New Year's Eve but has nowhere to go. A woman tries to commit suicide after a man she picks up in a bar pees the bed. A woman grows up in such a tormented household that, after leaving, no amount of adversity can cast a shadow upon her happiness. A girl walks like a soldier with her arms down at her sides to hide the sweat stains in the armpits of her mother's hand-me-down dress. A few minutes of "half-naked passion on the cramped kitchen sofa" lead to childbirth and a "grim foreboding" about a "softhearted boy without will or ambition."
Nearly all the stories in this volume are about women. A few of the women (usually friends or relatives of the main character) are shrews. Some are emotionally or mentally stunted. Most are victims -- of abuse or poverty or incest or unfaithful lovers. Nearly all of them persevere; they have no choice. Some of the stories are dark comedies, others are just dark. Occasionally the stories are about women in full but, in many cases, we see only small, eventful slices of their lives. Some of the stories left me wanting more, some are more insightful than others, a couple seem pointless, but the best ones are a powerful indictment of a society that places little value on impoverished women, and a wry examination of women who do not adequately value themselves. If the stories have a shared message, it isn't "love conquers all" -- for Petrushevskaya's women, love simply conquers.
My favorite story, "Tamara's Baby," is about an arrogant, parasitic man and the elderly woman who treats him like a child. Two other standouts are "Young Berries," which tells of a girl who survives the cruelty of her fellow students and gains the appreciation of a boy, and the ironically titled "A Happy Ending," about a woman who has a plan to leave the husband (she calls him "Clapper") who gave her gonorrhea.
Petrushevskaya tells her stories in prose that derives power from its simplicity and shrewdness. She is an eloquent spokeswoman for the Russian women who suffered the horrors of totalitarian oppression, drunken husbands, indifferent employers, and uncaring families. If I could, I would give this story collection 4 1/2 stars.