Friday, July 19, 2019

Jacob's Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a century-spanning epic of Russian life

Nora Ossetsky, a set designer in 1970s Moscow, discovers a willow chest filled with her paternal grandparents’ correspondence after her Grandmother Marusya’s death. Thus begins acclaimed Russian writer Ulitskaya’s (The Big Green Tent, 2014) expansive novel about the complications of human lives and repeating generational patterns, set against a backdrop that spans a century of tumultuous Russian and Soviet history.

Nora’s and Marusya’s parallel stories are intercut, and both depict the challenge of maintaining long-distance relationships. Nora endures separations from her Georgian lover and later from her eccentric son, while Marusya, a dancer from Kiev, and the man she marries, Jacob Ossetsky, lay their hearts and minds bare in passionate letters written while apart.

Although the novel’s early pages promise the revelation of family secrets, and the narrative delivers, it is primarily concerned with evoking people’s quotidian joys and sorrows. The story sojourns through the realms of music, science, and politics as Ulitskaya gives full rein to her characters’ thoughts—particularly Jacob’s, with his great thirst for knowledge—but the plot remains strong. Ideal for devotees of Russian literature and epic tales.

Jacob's Ladder, translated from Russian by Polly Gannon, is published by FSG this month; I reviewed it for Booklist's 6/1/19 issue.

I'll admit it: the heft of Ulitskaya's novels have been rather daunting (this one clocks in at 560pp), but the story is very approachable, and the translation fluid. I would suggest reading it as an ebook, as I did, if you find that format agreeable.

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