A Terrible Country

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Thank You to Viking for providing me with a copy of Keith Gessen’s novel, A Terrible Country, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Andrei immigrated from Russia to the United States as a child and now in his early thirties, is a Russian Scholar. He’s struggling to find steady employment and to make his mark in academia, so when his brother calls on him to return to Moscow to care for their elderly grandmother, Andrei decides to go. Beyond caring for a grandmother whom he loves, he hopes that being in Russia will revive his career. Andrei is not prepared for the culture shock that he will encounter in his homeland. It teaches him that being born in a place and learning about it in books, is not the same as day-to-day living.

LIKE– Initially, I was drawn to Gessen’s novel by theme of caregiving. Like Andrei, I’ve been in the position of being caregiver and I could relate to both his frustrations and the joy from this precious time spent with a loved one. Andrei’s relationship with his grandmother, Baba Seva, is one of pure love and devotion. He gives her his all, even when he is struggling financially or is feeling doubtful about his own future. The best parts of A Terrible Country are the scenes between Andrei and Baba Seva. She has dementia and her confusion is heartbreaking.

I’m fairly familiar with famous Russian literature, but I don’t have a wide understanding of Russian history or what a modern Russia looks like. Gessen’s novel gave me a glimpse into Russia: the daily life in a major city and the culture. The title of the book is a refrain through-out the story, even Baba Seva tells Andrei that Russia is “A Terrible Country” urging him to leave, as she refuses to do so herself. This sentiment is multi-faceted. In the most simplistic sense, it is terrible because of the wealth disparity, the crime, and corruption. Andrei realizes that he has had it very easy in America. On the flip-side, this is the place of his birth, the place where he still has family. He feels a strong pull towards Russia. Andrei also manages to make friends during his year in Russia, including a girlfriend. He comes to see the beauty beyond the frustrations and he embraces Russia; warts and all. Russia is no longer a memory from his childhood or a mythology patched together from text books, but a place that is part of his soul. He has developed a strong bond with this terrible country.

DISLIKEA Terrible Country was uneven in keeping my interest. It took me several weeks to read. I suspect this was due to the heavy themes and slice-of-life style, but I kept reading it in spurts, a few chapters at a time and setting it aside in favor of other books. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, I just found the story world to be a place that I didn’t want remain for an extended stay.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Gessen is a talented writer and A Terrible Country is great for readers who want a deeper look at modern day Russia. It compels me to seek out non-fiction books on the subject.