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Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin

GrushinThe forty rooms of the title are the rooms the main character occupies during her life. Room one is the bathroom in her childhood dacha in Moscow where her mother bathes her and tells Russian fairy tales. In room three, our nameless character is in her father’s study for their weekly “culture hour” during which he explains important things to her. Later chapters bring us to her American college dorm room, her first apartment, and the many rooms of her marital home.

Each room is described not only by what it looks like, but by what our narrator thinks and feels while there. A budding poet, she agonizes over what to write, how to explain her emotions, especially as she transitions from her native Russian to English. Fairies and specters from her childhood appear, as well as the occasional visit from a dearly departed friend or family member. We follow her life story as she lives in each room, and who she lives with, and how. This book is a fascinating insight into a woman’s mind, her family life, loves, and struggle for identity and validation as her life unfolds. It would be hard to read this and not see yourself somewhere in the pages.

Don’t read this book too quickly –Grushin’s writing is complex, poetic, and laden with meaning. I stopped to reread many passages aloud, they are that lyrical. The early writing, when she is still thinking in Russian may require a bit of patience, but it’s so worth it!

Early chapters are told in the first person, and we do not know our main character/narrator’s name. Later in the book, the narrative point of view shifts to the third person, and the main character refers to herself by her married name, “Mrs. Caldwell.” Is that who she really is, or is that dreamy Russian poet still somewhere in her soul?

Literary review journal Kirkus gave Forty Rooms a starred review, and calls it “a novel to savor.” I agree! There will be hours of discussion in this book; I recommend it for book clubs that relish good literature. It is an unusual novel, written in a unique style. I enjoyed the book very much, and am still thinking about it. 


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