When Russian composer Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky returned to his homeland in 1962 to conduct a concert at the Great Hall of the Philharmonia in Leningrad, the line for tickets formed a full year before the performance. In Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, a fictional version of that historic event (complete with an alternate-universe Stravinsky named Igor Selinsky) lies at the heart of an examination of human desire frustrated by bureaucracy and circumstance.
After a mysterious kiosk opens up on an otherwise deserted street, the snaking line in front of it promises something incredible, though no one knows exactly what. For Anna, a teacher trapped in an increasingly bland marriage in an increasingly destitute city, anything to “lend some simple beauty to her everyday life” is reason enough to spend hours—then days, then weeks—in the line. And when it becomes clear that the stall will be selling tickets to a concert by an exiled genius, Anna’s husband Sergei queues up too. After “The Change” (which, in the book’s hazy, mythic language, parallels the October Revolution of 1917), he was forced to trade in his violin for the state-sanctioned tuba and perform the same leaden, patriotic anthems night after night; a Selinsky concert will be a glimpse into the life he could have led in a less-oppressive country. Soon, the whole family is taking turns waiting in front of a counter that has been dormant for months, as Anna’s mother, Maya, breaks her silence to request a ticket, hoping to relive her days with the ballet, and Anna’s truant son, Alexander, joins in, hoping for a chance to escape the bleakness of his hometown for the wonders of a fantastical East.
In the world of The Line, no desire, no matter how trifling, is met without a herculean struggle, and Anna’s stymied attempts to present her family with something as simple as a date cake sometimes devolve into farce. But for the most part, Grushin expertly maintains a dreamlike tone to sell the novel’s more preposterous (albeit historically grounded) elements, and characters who initially appear one-dimensional become intensely empathetic by the novel’s end, as they bristle or cave under a society that grinds down the exceptional to make way for the pedestrian.