Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Genre: Romance, general; contemporary fiction

My Rating: ★★★ (specifically, 2.5 of 5 stars)

Short stories possess a kind of magic that novels sometimes do not have. The worlds in them seem smaller because of their length, but I came to realize that this is nothing but a hypercritical verdict: the worlds in them are in truth so much bigger, as there is a plethora of possibilities hanging at the ledge of every tale’s abrupt end. The readers often get to be the mind-pilots when they reach the said ledge, imagining what would happen past the borders. These tales are like tiny pieces of a universe pulled apart and made to stand alone. The very good ones are strong enough to make a reader believe they do not need to be a part of something bigger in order to do what volumes of others could, from something as small as scraping the reader’s heart to something as large as totally changing someone’s life.  Imagine what an anthology of these kinds of stories would be like!

But let us keep in mind that a tale’s power is directly tied to its effect to the audience. In the end, it is still a matter of preference and taste—what can reduce you to tears may only be able to make me arch an eyebrow; what can make me laugh like there is no tomorrow may only make you shrug.

Considering this, I believe that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s ’s anthology There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories may be regarded as a powerful collection, but one whose clout does not quite hit my heart’s bull’s eye nor grabbed at my interest for long. (The title did arrest my curiosity, I'll admit, but it was its contents that I have a few concerns with.)

Don’t get me wrong: the stories have a lot to offer. They bring forth a blend of bittersweetness, hope, desperation, grit, heartbreak. They flash facets of histories of women who sought, found, and lost love in a variety of places and situations: seedy apartments that witnessed infidelities, hasty and messy one-night stands, hesitant romances in corporate bubbles, trysts crutched by temporary bliss, and label-less relationships. They feature an assortment of women, too—there are strong ones, "weak" ones , and those lodged in between. But even though there is a lengthy list of rave reviews for this anthology and the one that preceded it (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales), I cannot seem to find a concrete element in it that will make me cherish it as something that is utterly remarkable.

I think my main concern with the whole thing is that even though the stories are meant to be stand-alones, the characters (and in effect, the situations they are in) seem to bleed into each other. And I am not talking in a seamless, spin-off-like Venn Diagram way either. It was as if there is a handful of templates for characters that get recycled for the individual tales, as though there is a lone element that make them identical in voice and demeanor.

The result, for me, is that there is no character that stood out. Well-written characters are vital for short stories because they often drive the whole tale with them. Like what I said in the beginning of this review, there might be a bigger universe outside a short story’s concrete margins when it reaches the end, but the space where characters could establish themselves as beings worthy of being remembered is very small. The process of character creation and/or development should happen here—it could not extend to those unseen margins.

I liked how each story unfolded, though. The successions of every scene hold a flavor of honesty and simplicity; their undemanding messages could be conveyed to their audience effortlessly. Remembering these bits as something notable could be a lot easier if their anchors—the characters, of course—are as strongly knitted as they are.

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