Mother Russia

Sunday, February 10, 2008

LADY OF THE SNAKES

By Rachel Pastan

Harcourt. 308 pp. $24

By now, most of us know that having it all is not a viable option. Something always falls through -- the babysitter, the promotion, even the marriage itself. Children get sick. Husbands withdraw. And personal ambition can slip like air through your fingers.

Jane Levitsky, the heroine of Rachel Pastan's new novel, is learning this the hard way. She's a young professor, specializing in 19th-century Russian literature. And from the start of this smart novel she's torn between her intellectual life and the needs of her newborn daughter. She also finds herself at odds with her husband, Billy, who has ambitions of his own.

"Jane's life was transformed as suddenly as a plot of land was transformed by a developer," Pastan writes. " This is what women's lives are like, she thought with a start in the dim kitchen, her bare feet cold against the linoleum. It had never occurred to her -- not really -- that women's lives were still so deeply different from men's. Now she saw it, and it shocked her."

She is likewise surprised by the reactions of women around her. Jane's adviser, the first woman in the department to have gotten tenure, is childless and proud of it. When she learns of Jane's pregnancy, she scoffs, "You can't serve two masters." Another former colleague has given up her teaching job altogether to raise three children full-time.

But Jane is determined to live her life differently. She accepts a tenure-track position in Madison, Wis., and immerses herself in her work. Her research leads her to a Russian novel called "Lady of the Snakes," by Grigory Karkov (a carefully drawn creation by Pastan). The writer's wife, Masha Karkova, and her role as mother and muse fascinate Jane. Unfortunately, the Karkov legacy has already been appropriated by a senior colleague who sabotages Jane's research when it conflicts with his own version of events.

Pastan's novel shifts gears here and becomes a sort of mystery story. Who is the real author of "Lady of the Snakes"? But much of what is uncovered feels predictable and flat. Nineteenth-century Russia doesn't hold a candle to the contemporary story of this two-career marriage full of dirty dishes, student papers and a screaming baby.

Still, Pastan's writing is fluid and frank, and her characters are luminescent. Many women will recognize this as a realistic portrayal of the rewards and the pitfalls of trying to have it all.

-- Lisa Page teaches at George Washington University.

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