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Book Review

Waiting for an untold promise and paying with persistence

By Amanda Katz
April 27, 2010

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Olga Grushin’s second novel revolves around a defining pastime of life in the Soviet Union: waiting in line. In the mid-20th-century city where her book unfolds, people join the line without even knowing what it’s for. When they learn the prize is tickets to a rare concert by a defector, composer Igor Selinsky, their anticipation keeps them waiting for a year.

This fanciful premise has both historical and literary precedents. In 1962, a line in Leningrad for a concert by Igor Stravinsky grew, over a year, into a temporary society. In “The Line,’’ Grushin, the Russian-American author of “The Dream Life of Sukhanov,’’ portrays a mother, father, grandmother, and son to whom a similar line brings unexpected freedom.

The book bears a more ambiguous relationship to a literary forebear: Vladimir Sorokin’s novel “The Queue,’’ first published in 1983 and now considered a postmodern classic. “Comrade, who’s last in the queue?’’ it begins, and continues entirely in the voices of those waiting. Grushin employs more conventional third-person narration except for brief interludes at the beginning, middle, and end, which precisely mimic Sorokin’s style. Even her first sentence is almost identical to his: “Who’s last in line?’’

It’s unclear whether this is coincidence, carelessness, or tribute. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. We all stand behind someone, in writing as in life. As Grushin’s novel persuasively argues, what’s important is what we make of our time in the queue.

For the family at this book’s center, the line is transformative. Day and night, they take turns waiting for a single ticket out of duty, then desperation, then altruism. There is Anna, a pathetically selfless teacher; her husband, Sergei, a frustrated musician; and Alexander, their sullen teenager. At home waits Anna’s silent mother, a former ballerina, guarding memories of happier days including a long-ago relationship with Selinsky.

Anna, Sergei, and Alexander know little of Selinsky’s work, but they soon abandon work and school to wait among strangers: a young woman who enchants Sergei, a lonely middle-aged one who befriends Anna, men who introduce Alexander to gambling and liquor. Yet in forging new bonds, they become strangers to each other. As Sergei reflects, “three people lived alongside him . . . whom he once, not long ago, believed he knew so well he was bored by them and yet he now felt a terrible, heartbreaking certainty that he had somehow missed them completely.’’

Meanwhile, the mysterious concert becomes a screen for the projection of dreams. One person suggests it’s a choral piece, another a new symphony, “a kind of overview of civilization.’’ With information at a trickle, rumor and fantasy reign.

Grushin writes movingly of transcendent moments in which “no object was meaningless, no action inconsequential.’’ Less satisfying are repetitive scenes of futile sacrifice: the family savings squandered, an invaluable record bought and broken, precious jewelry sold for a song. These highs and lows may reflect the rhythm of Soviet days, but to the reader it’s a bit like being trapped in a “Gift of the Magi’’ theme park.

Grushin’s prose follows similar peaks and valleys: from hypnotic and gorgeous to anachronistically American (“some random concert’’) and stiltedly British (“Anna’s flat-heeled shoes fell to the pavements’’). Though some passages soar, the unevenness is distracting.

Still, if Grushin’s writing sometimes seems effortful, the effort is not in vain. By the end, Sergei feels like he has “been taken apart, piece by piece, then put back together again; but the order of the pieces was subtly different, or else they fit together in a different, looser way, with spaces left between them for air, or light, or music.’’ As this book shows, that sense of possibility can arise not just from standing in line but from reading about it.

Amanda Katz, a writer and editor in New York, can be reached at amanda@amandalkatz.com.

THE LINE By Olga Grushin

Putnam, 336 pp., $25.95