After more than 30 years of publishing in her native Russia, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya caught American eyes with a macabre, delightful collection of “scary fairy tales” titled There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby. Petrushevskaya’s stories in her new collection, There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, combine the brevity of Lydia Davis with the familial strangleholds of Chekhov. They’re short and brutal, but often elegant in their economy.
The subtitle “love stories” is a dark joke, as the relationships developed and deranged in these 17 pieces tend to serve their participants as a brief respite from bigger problems. All-consuming passions are reserved for real estate (as with the belittled wife in “A Happy Ending,” whose secret inheritance allows her to fantasize about escape) or the path of least resistance (for the hero of “Tamara’s Baby,” unable to hold his tongue when an older lover takes him in). The ideal of love often dwarfs the practical implications; continual rejection causes the heroine of “The Adventures Of Vera” to break down a little further whenever her officemates refuse her advances, while the single teacher of “The Goddess Parka” marries the woman his summer neighbor has been trying to set him up with because after the neighbor’s death, “there was no one to resist, and his life lost its meaning.”
The love affairs Petrushevskaya depicts arrived soaked in the futility of the world where they take place, with family and geography cuffing them even when the desire is mutual. In “Young Berries,” the Grimm-est of the tales and a reminder of Petrushevskaya’s breakout collection, a girl fielding a phone call from her first crush is surrounded first by threatening classmates in a forest, and then by her nosy relatives; unable to enjoy the moment, she makes her excuses and hangs up. A grandmother’s cane watching over a woman who brings a man home in “Two Deities” stands in for a lifetime of intrusion disguised as affection, and during the tryst, Petrushevskaya writes, “the grandmother never left the room.” The characters’ emotional lives mirror the Soviet-era privations under which they live. Feeling is often their main extravagance, but it sometimes proves too costly.
Petrushevskaya’s crackling language provides the emotional distance necessary to appreciate the chains of plot connecting these contained lives as they click along to their endings. Often, a well-placed adverb or phrase breaks the narrative curve; in “Hallelujah, Family!”, she describes the tragedy “There Once Lived A Girl” refers to, but at the last minute, raises the question of whether the girl bears any responsibility for her brother-in-law’s death. The structure of the story up to that point is worked so tightly, mimicking the airless apartment where they all live, that once doubt is admitted, it roars in.