Monday, January 21, 2008

"Lady of the Snakes" charmed my mind and heart


There's no school today and I had just enough time to steal away to write a new book review:

Usually I tear into a book but this time I felt like Rachel Pastan's new novel Lady of the Snakes devoured me and left me an extremely satisfied reader. As a motherhood writer myself, I've read hundreds of books about the tradeoffs between work and family that all mothers have to face. Since reading is part of my work, at this point in my life I am generally burned out about reading about motherhood, and have little patience for either dense literary fiction or fluffy "chick lit."

Against that background, Lady of the Snakes was a wonderful treat. Incredibly honest about the everyday realities of a young academic juggling work and family, yet engrossing on the level of big questions; compulsively readable and convincingly literary at the same time. Rachel Pastan creates believable voices for both her modern heroine, Professor Jane Levitsky, and Jane's research subject, Russian countess Maria Karkova. (Quite an accomplishment given that Pastan had to create the excerpts of Karkova's journals and letters as well as the fictional 19th-century literary masterpieces of her husband Grigory Karkov.)

The academic mystery/counterplot about Karkov and Karkova is involving even if you have no background in Russian literature. The relationships between Karkov and Karkova, Jane and Maria, Jane and her husband Billy, and Jane and her academic rivals avoid easy categorization, mirroring the complicated textures and ambivalence of real life. I was touched by Jane's honesty about the tug she felt toward her work even as she cared deeply for her young daughter.

Lady of the Snakes
would make an ideal book club selection. If you enjoyed Allegra Goodman's Intuition or A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance I highly recommend Lady of the Snakes.

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