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The internationally acclaimed author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov now returns to gift us with Forty Rooms, which outshines even that prizewinning novel.
Totally original in conception and magnificently executed, Forty Rooms is mysterious, withholding, and ultimately emotionally devastating. Olga Grushin is dealing with issues of women’s identity, of women’s choices, that no modern novel has explored so deeply.
“Forty rooms” is a conceit: it proposes that a modern woman will inhabit forty rooms in her lifetime. They form her biography, from childhood to death. For our protagonist, the much-loved child of a late marriage, the first rooms she is aware of as she nears the age of five are those that make up her family’s Moscow apartment. We follow this child as she reaches adolescence, leaves home to study in America, and slowly discovers sexual happiness and love. But her hunger for adventure and her longing to be a great poet conspire to kill the affair. She seems to have made her choice. But one day she runs into a college classmate. He is sure of his path through life, and he is protective of her. (He is also a great cook.) They drift into an affair and marriage. What follows are the decades of births and deaths, the celebrations, material accumulations, and home comforts—until one day, her children grown and gone, her husband absent, she finds herself alone except for the ghosts of her youth, who have come back to haunt and even taunt her.
Compelling and complex, Forty Rooms is also profoundly affecting, its ending shattering but true. We know that Mrs. Caldwell (for that is the only name by which we know her) has died. Was it a life well lived? Quite likely. Was it a life complete? Does such a life ever really exist? Life is, after all, full of trade-offs and choices. Who is to say her path was not well taken? It is this ambiguity that is at the heart of this provocative novel.
This newest work from Grushin, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, is an enchanted meditation on poetry and life in which a child of the Moscow intelligentsia rejects a "small life consumed by happiness" in America and a life driven by "the divine standards of art." But her path veers wildly in the New World, when she is seduced by and marries a successful young businessman whose "capable presence" she finds relaxing. The narrative then switches from the first to third person, and we witness the choices and conflicts for the young poet, known to readers only by her married name, Mrs. Paul Caldwell, as she has children and finds material comfort. "Perhaps, she thought, if you lived in a place like this, you would get to live longer too, and you would then be more willing to forgive yourself any mistakes, any spiteful wishes any wrong turns along the way. You would have more time to fix everything." Grushin best captures the nagging regrets of her tortured artist in a magically lyrical pair of conversations with her bitter and bowed husband. At the end of life, Grushin concludes that the impossible, irresistible path of art is what's most joyful and memorable.