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There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories Paperback – January 29, 2013
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The length of this collection’s title is in inverse proportion to the brevity of the stories, a contrast neatly reflecting Petrushevskaya’s covert but stinging irony. She won awards and accolades for the fantastic tales in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009). The scouring realism showcased here in 17 works spanning her long writing life is the narrative mode that made her famous and led to her being banned in her native Russia. These strange, violent, and devastating stories of love warped by poverty, anger, and pain embody the Soviet era’s soul-starving shortages of dignity, shelter, and freedom. Petrushevskaya’s afflicted characters are trapped in wretchedly crowded communal apartments and suffocating family configurations, bereft of privacy, comfort, and hope. Out of misery coalesce the weirdest and most warped of romances, some disastrous, some grotesque, some liberating, while mothers’ love for their children brightens an absurdly cruel world. Petrushevskaya’s phenomenal skill in coaxing radiance from resignation, courage from despair, makes for universal and timeless stories of piercing condemnation, sly humor, profound yearning, and transforming compassion. --Donna Seaman
“Deeply unromantic love stories told frankly, with an elasticity and economy of language, . . . dark, fatalistic humor and bone-deep irony.” —The New York Times Book Review
“This gem’s exquisite conjugation of doom and disconnect is so depressingly convincing that I laughed out loud. . . . On par with the work of such horror maestros as Edgar Allan Poe.” —Ben Dickinson, Elle
“Petrushevskaya writes instant classics. . . . These, as the title proclaims, are love stories, scored to a totalitarian track.” —The Daily Beast
“Combines the brevity of Lydia Davis with the familial strangleholds of Chekhov. They’re short and brutal, but often elegant in their economy.” —The Onion A.V. Club
“Full of off-kilter, lurid, even violent attempts at connection.” —Flavorwire, 10 of the Most Twisted Short Stories About Love
“Petrushevskaya’s short stories are painfully good.” —Kelly Link, The New York Times Book Review
“Heartbreaking, but . . . also beautiful and touching in describing how, if not love, at least companionship, can save the most lost souls.” —The Rumpus
“These bitter, funny, and often absurd tales of love between unsuspecting men and women paint a bleak picture of Soviet living and the frequent (im)possibilities of love.” —PopMatters
“An important writer . . . Russia’s best-known . . . She’s a much better storyteller than her American counterparts in the seedy surreal. . . . Petrushevskaya’s stories should remind her readers of our own follies, illusions and tenderness.” —Chicago Tribune
“This is romance Russian-style, ‘tough love’ in its most literal sense, yet somehow, its bleakness is more satisfying in its humanity and aesthetic simplicity than the sugary appeal of so many popular love stories.” —Rain Taxi
“Dark and mischievous . . . [Petrushevskaya’s] stories never flinch from harshness, yet also offer odd redemptions . . . comedic brilliance . . . microscopic precision . . . several inimitable, laugh-out-loud paragraphs . . . creepy early-Ian-McEwan style identity disintegrations [and a] formidable way with a character profile. . . . [The translation, by] Anna Summers, [is] starkly elegant, often wry. . . . Summers also provides a sensitive, informative and insightful introduction. . . . Petrushevskaya . . . ensures herself a place high in the roster of unsettling Writers of the Weird.” —Locus
“Both supremely gritty and realistically life-affirming . . . Full of meaningful, finely crafted detail.” —Publishers Weekly
“Think Chekhov writing from a female perspective. . . . Petrushevskaya’s short stories transform the mundane into the near surreal, pausing only to wink at the absurdity of it all.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This celebrated Russian author is so disquieting that long after Solzhenitsyn had been published in the Soviet Union, her fiction was banned—even though nothing about it screams ‘political’ or ‘dissident’ or anything else. It just screams.” —Elle
“Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.” —More
“The fact that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is Russia’s premier writer of fiction today proves that the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Babel is alive and well.” —Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“Her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences.” —The New York Times Book Review
“What distinguishes the author is her compression of language, her use of detail and her powerful visual sense.” —Time Out New York
“A master of the Russian short story.” —Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov
“There is no other writer who can blend the absurd and the real in such a scary, amazing and wonderful way.” —Lara Vapnyar, author of There Are Jews in My House
“One of the greatest writers in Russia today and a vital force in contemporary world literature.” —Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
“A master of the short story form, a kindred spirit to writers like Angela Carter and Yumiko Kurahashi.” —Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen
Top customer reviews
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.