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.
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Olga Grushin is a Russian-born award-winning writer whose work has been translated into fifteen languages. Her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction and for England’s Orange Award for New Writers. The New York Times chose it as a Notable Book of the Year, and both it and her second novel, The Line, were among The Washington Post’s Ten Best Books of the Year (2007, 2010). In 2007, Granta named Grushin one of the Best Young American Novelists. Forty Rooms is her third novel. Grushin was born in Moscow, moved to the United States as a teenager, and now lives outside Washington, D.C., with her two children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE TREE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD
The bathroom is the first place to emerge from the haze of nonbeing. It is cramped and smells sweet and changes from time to time. When the world outside hardens with dark and cold, the sky-blue tiles grow icy and sting my naked soles, but pipes vibrate in a low, comforting hum and the water is hot and delightful; I plunge into it with a heedless splash, rushing to slide into soap suds up to my chin before the prickle of goose bumps overtakes me. Then the world swells stuffy and bright, and now the coolness of the floor feels nice, but the pipes lie chilled and inert; I watch the stream from a just-boiled teakettle hit the cold water inside the plastic bucket before I climb gingerly into the empty tub and wait for the sponge to dribble lukewarm rivulets down my back.
Most evenings the hands that touch me are the ones I know best, light and gentle, with a delicate ring on one finger and fingernails lovely and pink like flower petals. With the hands comes a voice, a soft, quiet voice that sings to me – though the songs themselves sound sad. Other times, the hands are harder, their fingers thick and blunt, the fingernails cut short, almost to the quick, one finger squeezed tight by a plain golden band that seems far too small for it; but these hands are never rough, and I like them just as much, not least because I am less used to them and I feel curious, and also because the voice of the blunter hands does not sing but tells jokes. The voice is firm at the edges, and the jokes are loud, large with mooing roosters and oinking cats, and a naughty gnome who comes only on Sundays to talk of messy meals and chamber pots and other things equally funny and gross, and I laugh and laugh until bubbles spurt out of my nose.
But sometimes, rarely, the hands are different – large, loose-skinned, and bony, smelling of smoke, their long fingers stiff, their joints like the bark of the old tree by the swing set in the courtyard. These hands move with an odd, crablike grace, barely touching the sponge, forgetting why they are there, emitting faint clatter and jingle as they alight on the side of the tub; open-mouthed with amazement, I watch a bracelet of pink oval stones slide up and down the withered wrist, each stone carved with a pale woman’s face, thin and elegant, glowing from within. And the voice, like the hands, is withered and straying; and it does not sing, and it does not laugh – it tells stories instead.
The passing of seasons, another winter giving way, another summer cresting, brings with it Grandmother’s yearly visit. I find myself waiting for the stories above all else.
They never have the same beginnings – no matter how much I beg for some half-remembered tale, Grandmother will not repeat herself – but they all lead to the same place, a hidden kingdom of manifold marvels. The kingdom is reached in a hundred different ways, though few ever gain entrance to it. Some stumble upon it after a lifelong search, having wandered through treacherous forests and climbed snowy mountains, while others are plunged there headlong, without any warning, without expectation, having tasted of a strange drink or chased a chance shadow around the corner or stared for a moment too long into the mirror. (One little girl with the same name as mine arrives in the kingdom wet and wrapped in a towel: she is taking a bath when she gets swept down the drain.) The kingdom is home to amazing creatures and things – candle flames that have run away from their candles, warring armies of spoons and forks, flocks of traveling belfry bells, a beautiful blind fairy, a mouse who dreams only of dragons, a knight who has lost his horse – and all the creatures ceaselessly travel along the kingdom’s many paths, some straight and simple, others twisted and full of dark adventure, all winding their way toward the kingdom’s secret heart. There, at the center of the world, where all the paths converge, grows a wondrous tree whose branches touch the skies, and there, by its vast ancient roots, the creatures halt and wait – wait for the leaves to fall.
“And why do they want those leaves so much?” I ask, as I always do. “Are they made of gold?”
“They aren’t gold,” my grandmother answers, “but they are precious all the same. One side of each leaf bears a name, and only the person whose name it is can read the words on the leaf’s other side. And only one leaf on the tree has your name on it, so if you aren’t there waiting for it when it falls, you miss it forever.”
“And what words are they, Grandmother?”
“The most important words in the world,” she replies.
“Yes, but what do they say?”
Her fingers click with faint impatience against the tub’s edge.
“They are different for every person, so I can’t tell you.”
I sink back in the bath. No matter how her tales begin, they always end this way: she will add nothing more. Whenever she starts, I hope that tonight will be different, that tonight she will tell me the rest. But she never does. She is a hundred years old, I think angrily to myself, and she is more stubborn than anyone I know; she likes to hoard her secrets. I sit in the bath willing myself not to cry, the skin of my fingers and toes puckered from being too long in the water. My grandmother has forgotten the sponge yet again; she is staring at the tiles above my head, and her pale red-rimmed eyes have that unseeing look I catch from time to time, like the blank eyes of the carved women on her old bracelet. And suddenly I think: maybe she doesn’t even know how the story ends, maybe she arrived there too late to catch her own leaf.
All at once I feel terribly excited. I look at the drain. Suds are being sucked into its whirlpool, and I glimpse a slice of my pink scrubbed cheek, a corner of my brown eye reflected in its silver curve, and something else too, a tiny elfin face grinning at me, beckoning me closer with a hand like a twig before vanishing in a splash of foam. I decide that right away, without losing another minute, I too will slip down the drain, and ride the soapy waters to the mysterious depths of the hidden kingdom, and brave its crooked paths alongside dragons and spoons, and reach the tree at the heart of the world – and when my leaf falls, I will be there to read the words and tell everyone about it. But immediately I grow sad as I remember that I’m only four years old – four years and three quarters – and I don’t yet know how to read.
My mother sticks her head in the door. I feel a draft of cold air.
“Time for her milk,” she says. “Mama, you’re sitting on her towel.”
My grandmother stands up with slow, injured dignity and sails out of the bathroom.
2. MOTHER’S BEDROOM:
THE JEWELRY BOX
One evening in December I enter my mother’s bedroom to wish her good night, but my mother is not there. A mermaid is sitting on her bed instead. I know she is a mermaid right away, even though I am unable to make out the tail under the folds of her narrow skirt of the faintest gray color, the color of morning mist above the waters of our dacha pond. She is bending her long pale tresses over my mother’s jewelry box, which she is holding open in her lap; I can see the silky fabric of her strange skirt stretched tight over her knees beneath the lacquered edge of the box.
I feel enchanted by the presence of the mermaid but also deeply grieved. I love my mother’s jewelry box. It is made of shiny black wood, and on its lid two pearly girls with wide belts and sticks in their hair fan a third girl, while all around them tiny trees shimmer with rosy blossoms in a walled-in garden. It is the one object in this room filled with wonders that I long to possess, but I am never allowed to touch it. On my last birthday, when I turned six, I begged and begged until, with a small, patient sigh, my mother pulled open a drawer, maneuvered the box from under the layers of folded nightgowns and stockings, and let me marvel at the princess-like sparkling for a brief minute; but she did not show me anything closely. It makes me sad to find a stranger – even if she is beautiful, even if she is a mermaid – handling that box as though she owns it.
I am about to tiptoe out when the mermaid looks up and beckons me toward her.
“Do you want me to show you?” she asks.
Her voice is like my mother’s, but her eyes are not: they too are green, but their shifting depths lack the familiar misty softness; they glitter instead with joyous, hard brilliance, just like the brilliance I can already see trapped inside the jewelry box.
Now and then there are strange creatures to be stumbled upon in my mother’s bedroom – it is my parents’ bedroom really, but I have always thought of it as my mother’s alone – yet the mermaid makes me uneasy. She seems almost dangerous, more unpredictable than any of the others, not in the least like the kindly plump woman in the oval painting above the armchair who rambles about Brussels lace and satin slippers at teatime, or the two yellow-winged fairies who every spring morning slide down the sunbeams onto the dresser to splash in my mother’s perfume bottles, or the man smiling with bright white teeth under a wiry mustache who used to pay afternoon calls the summer I was five. (I liked him best of all because once or twice, just before he gently pushed me out into the hallway and locked the door behind me, he had given me a chocolate candy bar in crinkly wrappers with unfamiliar letters on the side, and also because he possessed magic powers and was invisible to everyone but me. “That child has such a wild imagination,” my mother said laughing gaily after I had mentioned the visitor with the mustache one night at supper, and my father laughed too, though not as gaily, and ruffled my hair. I felt offended at not being believed, but more than that, I regretted letting go of something that had been mine and mine alone: I found that I liked having secrets all my own. After that, I never said anything to anyone about the things I saw in my mother’s bedroom.)
The mermaid has already forgotten about me. She is staring into the box, moving her fingers over the velvet insides, as if remembering some tune she once played on a piano. I sit down on the edge of the bed, elated but wary. The mermaid begins to speak, but she is not speaking to me; she caresses this or that ring, this or that pendant, and tells long, winding tales I cannot follow.
“These cupid earrings,” she says, “have been in the family for four generations. Your great-grandmother received them as a sign of special favor from the tsar’s youngest uncle. He had them presented to her the night she premiered as Dulcinea. She had gifts from many men, of course, but this was the only thing she held on to when forced to sell off all her possessions in the civil war. One wonders why she kept them. She struggled so to feed her children, and the earrings would have brought in bread enough to last a month. But women in this family have always had their mysteries . . .” She pauses to take a sip from a nearly empty glass of dark red liquid on my mother’s nightstand. “Of course, it was well after her Dulcinea days that she married your great-grandfather and had your grandfather and the twins. But could there have been more to the Grand Duke anecdote? No one to ask about it now – all that’s left are two enamel cupids, half a rumor, and maybe, just maybe, a thimble of royal blood.”
“Is this my great-grandmother the ballet dancer?” I ask, confused. “And who is Dulcinea? And what is a thimble?” – but she does not answer, only lightly trails her fingers over the golden fire imprisoned in the box, and goes on talking.
“And see this ring? See how the emerald is uncut, rough and enormous, like some green, misshapen bird’s egg? This came from an ancient icon, from one of those priceless frames set with stones big as rocks. So many were vandalized in the revolution, hacked apart, hidden by drunks in rotting village coffers. Your grandfather got the emerald at the end of the war, traded it from another soldier for a length of smoked sausage and a box of German sweets, then kept it for years in an empty salt shaker. Eventually he had it set for Elena, your grandmother – a simple pewter setting, he could afford nothing more.”
“What does ‘vandalize’ mean?” I ask. “When was the revolution?”
In the circle of soft yellow lamplight the jewels inside their dark nests shift with hidden, treacherous fire. The mermaid takes another sip of the red liquid, tipping the glass into her mouth so abruptly that some drops spill onto the blanket. In profile she seems just like my mother, but every time she moves, every time she speaks, every time she looks past me, not hearing my questions, I am filled anew with the knowledge that she is not.
“And this bracelet I’ve had since I was a child. It reminds me of all the mornings spent searching for bits of amber in the sand after the tide.”
I am pleased to hear something I understand at last. My mother’s family came from the Baltics; she grew up spending summers on the Latvian coast. It must have been there that she met the mermaid. I was wrong to ever find the mermaid dangerous, I think with relief. As I shift closer to her gleaming gray flanks, I am startled into pity by a sudden thought. “But isn’t the Baltic sea too cold in winter? What do you do if it turns to ice?”
She drops the bracelet back into the box and glances down at me, her metallic green gaze slipping over my face with a swift, cold touch I can almost feel on my skin.
“But that’s enough, you are too little to care about the past,” she says, and while her tone seems light, the chill of the faraway sea is there, underneath.
My pity abandons me, as does my relief. Once again I am nervous.
She stands up, balancing the box in one hand and the glass in the other.
“Come to the mirror with me.”
Together we leave the reassuring circle of light and move into the graying dusk. The mirror over the dresser is oval, curvy, and gilded. On evenings such as this, wintry and still, I like to come and look at my mother’s room nestled into its quiet pool. The mirror room is smaller than the real one and has no angles, filled instead with a fuzzy, muted, familiar warmth, so much like my mother’s soft presence. But now the two of us are reflected in it, myself in my short white nightgown with green parrots, the mermaid a slim undulation of shadow behind my shoulder, and the mirror room seems different, cold and sharp-edged and mysterious, exciting in a new way, like something marvelous yet harmful, something forbidden, like – like a lollipop I once stole from the kitchen and devoured in crunching, glistening half-licks, half-bites in bed at night, under the covers, without cleaning my teeth afterward.
“Here, let’s try this on you, this was your father’s gift when you were born, it will be yours someday,” the mermaid says as she sets the jewelry box on the dresser and picks up a chain on which dangles a prim little cross of delicate pearls. But I have just spied something else – something I like so much more. Reaching out, I close my fingers on a necklace of small round stones, each kernel of blood-red glow in its own frame of darkness.
“This,” I say. “I wa...
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