There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 31 Jan 2013
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One of Russia's best living writers ... her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next (The New York Times)
Petrushevskaya proves that the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Babel is alive and well (The Daily Beast)
About the Author
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in Moscow in 1938 and is the only indisputable canonical writer currently writing in Russian today. She is the author of more than fifteen collections of prose, among them the short novel The Time: Night, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and Svoi Krug, a modern classic about the 1980's Soviet intelligentsia. Petrushevskaya is equally important as a playwright: since the 1980s her numerous plays have been staged by the best Russian theater companies. In 2002, Petrushevskaya received Russia's most prestigious prize, The Triumph, for lifetime achievement. She lives in Moscow.
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The start of each of the seventeen stories is direct while also inciting emotion in the reader, establishing empathy, and setting up the story to come. By the end of the first paragraph, the author reveals a character’s entire future. Although the character is completely different from the reader, Petrushevskaya gives the reader the impression that the character’s destiny could be his or hers. The reader need only read one sentence to completely feel and understand a whole story. For example, “Like Penelope” begins, “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else.” (23) Before knowing more about the protagonist, Oksana, the reader imagines this girl lives filled with loneliness, sadness, confusion, awkwardness, pain, and hope. For a moment the reader experiences that too. With each new story and every explanation of characters’ plights, the reader thinks and feels along with the story. In this way, the reader gains new insight into what it means live with struggles and flaws.
The text is not only fascinating because of the intricacy of the author’s storytelling, instead it blossoms into a beautiful piece of literature, because it contains the truth about human existence readers often ignore or want to forget. In society, the unwanted traits of the average person, like depression or loneliness, go unnoticed, because these attributes are dismissed by others and masked by the people who possess them. But, for Petruschevskaya secrets and embarrassment are important aspects of a person’s humanity, and they connect us all. The reader reads and imagines being the girl who is unloved, and he or she knows what it feels like to be ignored or unseen. Through her storytelling Petruschevskaya alternates perspectives by recognizing traits people often reject, and she makes the invisible important and worthy. The reader sees there is beauty in imperfection.
Most times, when reading about unhappy or unfairly treated people, the response is not the realization that people, places, and events are beautiful or poetic. This is, in part, because we learn from society to hide blemishes or weaknesses. Petruschevskaya’s stories are different; however, they show the reader that society can view humanity differently. We have the capacity to see and believe that real people, flaws included, are indeed lovely.
Petrushevskaya's stories are not diverse on the surface. It's not explicit, but I read most of the characters as white. The stories--love stories, the cover claims--appeared to be hetero in nature.
The bulk of these love stories are focused on women, and what is remarkable about these stories is the great breadth of Russian femininity* that Petrushevskaya tracks through her stories. The stories are pulled from the full spread of her writing career, and across them we have old heroines and very young heroines and heroines settling into middle age. We have hopeful and dour heroines. Beautiful, but mostly homely heroines. Bright and slow heroines. Heroines of virtually every description.
And, also specific to Russia, we have heroines that live in Soviet Russia and heroines that live in a Russia which has once again begun to flirt with capitalism. We see, through Petrushevskaya's eyes, the great and remarkable changes that Russian society went through while she lived, and how great (or small) an impact those changes made on the daily lives of its citizens.
Petrushevskaya has a light hand with narration and a uncanny, unflinching eye for vicious detail. These are love stories, but they are horror stories, too. These are stories, almost uniformly, about how completely random and obliterating and destructive love can be. She is a sly, deadpan writer, and the stories are like those told by your aunt who's seen too much and who is always slightly drunk at holiday dinners, but who is charismatic and fascinating anyway.
The only real fault I have with the collection is repetition. Sixteen stories is a lot to read in one go, especially when the themes are so consistent and similar. I wish the collection had been shorter, that the ten best and brightest had been chosen. But, then again, every anthology is a bit of a shot in the dark, yes? My top ten are probably not your top ten.
Speaking of, stand-outs (for me, anyway) were "Two Deities", "Tamara's Baby", "A Happy Ending," and especially "Milgrom".
*I would not venture to say that she is somehow speaking to all of womanhood or across all women's experience. That is certainly not true. But she does seem to speak to a great swath of Russian women's experience (I would think--I am not Russian).</p>
The characters in these stories treat love as just part of their day, or something that just happens, or something that is required of them.
In short, the love stories in this book are closer to real life than to fiction.
Despite the gloomy sounding description I just gave, I did enjoy the book very much. The translation was, for the most part, very well done, with just a few bits that probably just don't translate that well from the Russian.
The book is something a bit different, and perfect for those who like to have to think a bit about what they read.