This is a newish (written in Russian in 2015, but translated to English in 2019) long novel (550 pages) by the novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya, made probably most famous with her previous long novel, The Big Green Tent. That novel was about the various exiles and resistance movements to the Soviet government, focusing mainly on stories related to samzdat, the smuggling of illegal texts like Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita.
This novel is similar in a lot of ways, and different in some significant ways. In short, this is the story of multiple generations of a family, modeled off of Ulitskaya’s own family. But rather than being a multi-generational story, these stories are told concurrently in a couple of time periods (1910-1955), (1975-1999), and (2000-2013). So the effect is that while these stories are happening the reader is linked into the different times and the shifting landscape. The later, Soviet and post-Soviet parts of the novel are drier, and more clinical in their characterizations (dealing with, among others Soviet artists, and actual scientists), while the earliest section of the novel are heart-reading, earnest, and painful in their depiction. This is because these sections of the novel are pulled directly from the letters between Ulitskaya’s own grand parents throughout their marriage (and prior to, through the journals of her grandfather), two people absolutely in love with each other, in love with Russian literature and music, and separated by the long prison sentences and military service of Jacob Ossetsky. So the bulk of his sections are transliterated true texts, and the rest of the novel spins out from these. The novel, while hefty, picks up speed after about 100 pages and becomes kind of dazzling by the end, especially because we already know where we’re headed in the text.