By: Olga Grushin
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Marian Wood Books/Putnam (February 16, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
One of the pleasures of writing for this blog is getting a close up look at how literature is changing, and Forty Rooms is a fascinating combination of the old and the new. Its structure is a riff on two popular trends: the great importance given both to concretely described settings and on finding new ways to express the passage of time. Its heart, however, is unabashedly old fashioned, a full throated paean to the glories of poetry, sentiment, and the special talents of the artist. The result is a book that is both very clever and very passionate. It is also surprisingly dark.
Forty Rooms is structured around the forty rooms that are prominent in the narrator’s life, beginning with the bathroom where she is bathed as a child and sometimes told stories about mysterious other worlds that the little girl might enter by way of the bathtub’s drain. Throughout her youth in the Soviet Union and her very early adulthood in America, the rooms are not oppressive. They are staging points for her eventual foray out into the larger world as well as places of safety where she can dream. When she is seventeen she spends some time alone at the family dacha, and its balcony becomes one of her forty rooms.
The June evening is blue and clear, the roots at the end of our unpaved
street stand out with crisp precision against the pale breadth of fields
merging with the pale depth of the sky, and the world feels marvelously light,
and I feel marvelously light too, as if I might take off at any instant, sail
away in the small boat of the balcony into that luminous distance, the
sweet smells of grasses and clover, the exhilarating expanse of the
never-ending horizon — and splash through the slight chill in the air
as through the waters of some cool, delightful stream, and catch the
bright yellow moon like a leaping fish in my hand.
Delightful and fraught with promise as her childhood rooms are, however, the young girl instinctively feels that it would be shameful not to eventually leave them behind. She is embarrassed for her father when she realizes that he has never visited the countries he tells her about during their “culture hour,” and when a very eligible young man tells her that he has “excellent prospects,” she panics and sees her future as “a succession of increasingly suffocating rooms.” She would prefer to live “in a timeless poem.”
The tone of the book, and even the point of view changes, when she begins to date the American she will marry. The first person narrator soon becomes Mrs. Caldwell, and the rooms lose their connection to the outside world. Other characters travel the world, but Mrs. Caldwell does not even drive. By the time she is in her mid fifties, she thinks:
(T)his is the desert through which I am destined to wander — forty rooms,
each a test for my soul, a pocket-sized passion play, a small, yet vital choice,
a minute step toward becoming fully awake, fully human; and by the time
I have crossed my own wilderness of forty rooms, I too will be able to see the
world as it really is.
Mrs. Caldwell is rationalizing. The poetry she wants to write and the life she dreamed of are at odds with the housebound life she is actually living. The book has progressed from little girl dreaminess to an intense exploration of the powerful effect the mundane, concrete world can have on a woman’s passionate inner life. The forty rooms of this book are expansive enough to encompass the world, gods included, and they are small enough to squeeze the soul out of the people living in them.