In a letter to his wife, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke defined the artist’s baleful choice: “Either happiness or art.”
The young narrator of Olga Grushin’s third novel, “Forty Rooms,” seems to agree, vowing to shun a “small life consumed by happiness” in favor of one shaped by “the divine standards of art.” But, Grushin suggests, that choice is never simple or readily made. Sometimes, life chooses for you.
Grushin’s novel begins when the unnamed protagonist is 4 years old, living in Soviet Moscow in a family of intellectuals. She dreams of a future as an immortal poet and has visions of a muse she calls Apollo, who cautions her: “Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path.” Rejecting a predictable existence in Russia, she moves to the United States — as Grushin herself did in 1989 — where she first gives up love for the romance of artistic suffering but then marries a prosperous man and settles into a life of comfortable domesticity. A mother of six, she comes to be known only by her married name.
Is Mrs. Caldwell happy in her life, Grushin asks, or is she creating false justifications for the betrayal of her artistic dreams?
[Jonathan Yardley praises Olga Grushin’s ‘Dream Life of Sukhanov’]
Grushin’s formal conceit is to divide the novel into 40 scenes, each taking place in a separate room in which her character has lived. These 40 rooms house moments in which the character’s life changes direction, spurred by a choice or chance event. After she meets her future husband, the prose switches from the first to the third person, as though by marrying, Mrs. Caldwell had lost the right to her own story as well as her name.
During the character’s enchanted childhood, Grushin’s careful prose is suffused with the jewel tones of fairy tale, the lyrical particularities of a certain place in a certain time: a gem traded from a soldier “for a length of smoked sausage and a box of German sweets,” a “balcony moored to the rickety house by tenacious tendrils of ivy.”
As the plot progresses, though, the story begins to feel strangely prefabricated, the figurative language of detail exchanged for a series of generic, off-the-rack parts: youthful pseudo-intellectualism, a college seduction and the usual accouterments of suburban domesticity, from chardonnay and compulsive shopping to lipstick on a husband’s shirt collar. Yet Grushin complicates the character’s predictable trajectory by noting, at certain moments, that what is presented is just one of several alternate realities.
Perhaps Grushin felt the need to ground her protagonist’s trajectory from youthful genius to frustrated housewife in cliche in order to draw out the irony of her situation, the naive determination to eschew convention leading to a life fully defined by it. There is, certainly, a kind of implied bias against the narrator’s choice. The novel’s artists and intellectuals are attractive and vibrant, while the domestic life it presents is largely a facade, all tacky knickknacks and gilded plumbing. Although Grushin takes care not to allow Mrs. Caldwell to decide whether the happiness she has found is equal to an artist’s life, she frames the latter as freer, truer.
Oddly, there is no consideration of whether one might be both mother and artist, although this is precisely what Grushin, who lives outside Washington, is. Stranger still is the presence of a minor character who shares the author’s name and accomplishes everything Mrs. Caldwell once dreamed of, but steals from the protagonist’s life for her stories, having, it’s suggested, no life of her own.
Still, “Forty Rooms” is more than just a case study in failure. At 17, the narrator thinks: “The place I live in does not matter; nor do the daily tasks I perform; nor even the people with whom I spend my time — all these lie on the surface, fortunate or unfortunate accidents of birth and transitory vagaries of choice, which should not in any profound way affect my true essence, my only real life.” At some point, the novel opens up to consider whether being an artist is something one does or something one is. In moments like this, Grushin’s honesty about the dilemmas of artistic life shines through the predictability of her character, drawing the story toward an unexpectedly moving end.
Jenny Hendrix is a writer in Brooklyn.
By Olga Grushin
Marian Wood. 342 pp. $27