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there once lived a mother book coverReviewed by Sarah McCubbin

Initially the title drew me to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s book, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In. With lots of little feet currently in my house, I could imagine how someone might have such a sentiment. But, I mistakenly assumed it might have a humorous undertone. As it turns out, this book falls into a category of stories called “extremal” in the Russian culture. As that term suggests, this collection of novellas is extreme and shameful. They include violence, mental illness and imprisonment. These are not happy tales. They are way too real. They represent the hopeless existence lived by many, and in that sense, these short stories are tragic.

There are three novellas included in this book. The first one, The Time is Night, tells the story of Anna. She scrapes by on a meager income from her poetry, her grandson’s child support and her mother’s pension. While Anna does her best to care for her grandson, you see the lives of her children (a son and daughter) spiraling down after a series of bad choices. Hers is a constant thread of complaining intermixed with her devotion as a mother and a grandmother. Anna wants to see the best in her children but they repeatedly turn away and selfishly pursue destructive lifestyles. Her hope wanes until the end, when she finds herself completely alone. The reader is left to ponder which is more tragic, her dysfunctional family life or complete isolation. This sad story is followed by two other tales that are equally extreme and heart-wrenching.

In my opinion, this book should be read intentionally and not picked up for some light reading. Its true value is the insight it offers into a bygone time and culture of Communist Russia. But, these kinds of problems are not geographically bound. People the world over make bad choices and hurt the ones they love. One has to be completely calloused to walk away from these harsh realities unchanged. By acknowledging that such pain exists in people’s lives we open ourselves to showing kindness to others around us.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Group. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.