Published: February 16, 2016
Brilliant, insightful, imaginative, philosophical and unique! This novel, written by Russian born Olga Grushin is an incredible read. It is a collection of short stories each taking place in a room that the narrator has lived in or spent time in during her lifetime. The stories initially are set in Russia and then move to America when the narrator travels there for college. There are so many life truths illustrated beautifully within this novel: the twists and turns life takes us on; it’s meaning; the perceptions of others as well as ourselves; the changing vision and perspective of life as we age; the rooms we choose to inhabit and their impact on us. This was so despite, or perhaps as a result of, the overwhelming use of fantasy/magical realism within the book.
This novel is so powerful and rich with language, metaphors, imagery, mirrors and reflections. There is so much depth to the novel added by the insertion thoughts that the various other characters are having; by repeating scenes with different scenarios, leaving it open to interpretation what might have actually transpired and what was fantasy; and of course by the magical or fantastical characters. The whole novel has a “dizzying,” dream-like quality to it. Many of the scenes occur, followed by Mrs. Caldwell waking up.
The novel is divided into parts which represent different time periods in Mrs. Caldwell’s life. Within each part are chapters representing the rooms within which each of the short stories occur. Forty rooms was very purposely chosen. As the narrator’s mother tells her: “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit. It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true. Oh, you know what I mean- Noah’s forty days and nights of rain, Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation. Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too. In the Bible, forty years makes a span of one generation. Forty weeks makes a baby.”
In the beginning of the novel, the young Mrs. Caldwell hopes to achieve immortality. She wants only to write poetry and devote herself fully to that art. She is told by her Apollo that “the meaning of a single individual human life,.. consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind’s mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile.” She really does work hard at her poetry and it seems all-consuming until she meets Paul and settles into married life, not even telling him her aspirations or love of writing poetry. She becomes a mother in a foreign country, with no friends and does not even learn to drive for quite some time. She seems to have lost herself and is trapped in her family life, and in so doing, her marriage starts to fail as well.
I loved that this novel encompassed an entire life. The reader is able to observe the changes occurring from childhood through adulthood to the very end. It leaves you wondering how Mrs. Caldwell’s life might have been under different circumstances or had she made different choices. As a mother to young children who has made career concessions of my own, I felt swept away with this novel eager to hear the author’s final message or verdict on what might the right path be. I think this book is amazing! It is wonderfully written, incredibly insightful and sends many powerful messages! I must say, this book would appeal much more to women than men and would make a great book club read.
- What do you think is the meaning of life? How does it change as we age? Do you think that meaning is different for men and women?
- Where is truth in this novel really found? In the real life circumstances or in fantasy?
- What is the perspective on the “showing of wealth”: the large house and the many belongings and how it affects people?
- Paul makes a statement about how easy it is to stay at home. How easy is it really? What sacrifices are made?
- Why don’t you think Mrs. Caldwell ever confronted Paul about his affair?
- Do you think her poetry was ever any good?
- Who is Olga to her? Does she exist or is she fantasy?
- Do you think the man who visited her mother in the afternoons was real or fantasy? Do you think this is the same person as her Apollo?
- How might her life have been different had she gone back to Russia?
- How might her life have been different had she gone to Paris with Adam?
- Why do you think she kissed Adam in the wine cellar?
- Do you think Mrs. Caldwell ultimately led the life that made her happy?
- What are Mrs. Caldwell’s reasons for having children?
- Her grandmother tells her she won’t find happiness unless she gets greedy and looks for it. Does she follow this advice?
- What do you think makes for a happy life? Is it the small moments as Mrs. Caldwell alludes too?
- What do you think the author’s opinion is of the institution of marriage?