Tuesday, November 9, 2010

REVIEW: The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova

The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. Published 2000, New Directions. Literary Fiction. Short stories. Translated from the Russian.

A mere 144 pages, The Ladies from St. Petersburg is a collection of three short stories, the title story being the longest, almost a novella. Taken together, the three stories track the progress of the Russian Revolution from the days before it was even called that to the life of an emigre living in New York City after having fled its aftermath.

But writer Nina Berberova packs a lot into this slender volume despite the low page count. All three stories are beautiful, evocative and emotional; the first tells the sad story of young Margarita, whose mother dies while the two are on vacation at a boarding house in the country. All at once her world collapses, because her country and way of life fall apart at the same time that her family does. The second story, "Zoya," is the harrowing tale of an aristocratic woman taking shelter from the violence of the revolution in a boarding house where she faces the mocking hostility of everyone around her. "Zoya" is truly chilling and far more frightening to me than anything I've read in any so-called horror story; it's the horror of cruelty and indifference. The final story, "The Big City," is set in New York and tracks the attempts of an immigrant man to find friendship and community when it seems he's lost everything. "The Big City" brings the collection full circle when he strikes an unlikely friendship.

Read as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
Berberova has written a series of realistic short stories in which the chaos of the revolution is played out in small ways in the lives of ordinary people. She shows us how a young woman tries to find a casket for her dead mother, and how another tries to find a little peace and quiet in her rented bedroom- and how social upheaval gives licence to shocking cruelty. Finally she shows how one man finds peace in the appearance of the miraculous and surreal. The Ladies from St. Petersburg is a short, lovely book that would be a marvelous choice for readers of literary fiction and short stories. I have three more books of hers waiting to be read and I can't wait to step back in her strange, difficult and ultimately magical world.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.