There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya


I used to glorify Russia, having never visited there. But I pictured the snow in sparkling white crystals, with troikas skimming over the surface, as if Russia was a fairy land made of ice palaces rather than a prison made of rooms so poorly heated a family of four cannot stay warm within the walls.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya gives me a more accurate picture of Russia. A picture so bleak and hopeless I am grateful for every bad day I’ve ever had. Because all of them together could not equate with the life she has portrayed for the mother, also a poet, in her novella, Time is Night.

This mother’s own mother has schizophrenia. She has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital where at least she can receive a modicum of care. For the woman of the house has all she can do to manage her drunken son Andrey, freshly released from prison; her daughter, Alena, pregnant with her third child and no husband; her grandson, Tima, who counts on her for his daily existence yet lets her slide into the background when his mother appears at the door.

How can a simple apartment hold so many people? How can a poet’s salary provide enough food or money for the rent? How can a family survive under such conditions, and forgive me, such stupidity? For I know not how a woman can become pregnant over and over without a husband or a job. I know not how a son can rob from his mother when it is possible to live honorably. Maybe it is easy for me to say, as I have suffered under neither poverty nor such a hopeless existence.

This sentence, cried out by the mother as she is begging the ambulance driver to take her and her mother home, illuminates much:

On the other hand, if they get rid of me quickly, they can get a nice easy assignment: a family hacked to pieces by a drunken husband, for example.

This book comprised of three novellas is absolutely piercing. The description of horrors each family lives under is balanced by the writing of a humane and compassionate heart. It is no wonder that the novellas in There Once Lived A Woman Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In have earned Ludmilla Petrushevskaya the recognition of being one of Russia’s best living writers. Her writing contributes much to my understanding of life in Russia, of lives led in a quiet desperation. This book has touched me deeply.

Praise from other sources:

“An important writer . . . Russia’s best-known . . . She’s a much better storyteller than her American counterparts in the seedy surreal. . . . Petrushevskaya’s stories should remind her readers of our own follies, illusions and tenderness.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.”

[Petrushevskaya] is hailed as one of Rus­sia’s best living writers. This slim volume shows why. Again and again, in surprisingly few words, her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Petrushevskaya’s short stories—which use fairy tale imagery and allegory to comment on Russia’s Soviet past and corrupt present—combine Gogol’s depth of absurdity and Shirley Jackson paranoia, to disturbing effect…The rise of the tightly constructed ‘weird’ tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.”

“Anything but dull, the stories twist and peak in odd places. They create nooks in which the reader can sit and think: What does this mean?”
—Los Angeles Times

12 thoughts on “There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya”

  1. I too have a somewhat romantic view of Russia, all those images of Anna Karenina, snowy landscapes and bustling tea rooms. I hadn’t come across this author before reading your review, and this sounds like a harrowing but worthwhile read.


  2. When I think of Russia, I think of Doctor Z. I have a copy of this book and do want to read it, but have been reading a few depressing stories too many lately. I need to find just the right time for this one.


    1. It was depressing in many ways, yes, but I was also encouraged by the women’s strength. They were so brave! And, it showed me how blessed I am to live the life I do, even though it took hard work to get here.


  3. Apart from Anna Karenina I don’t think I’ve read any Russian literature of contemporary novels at all. This sounds interesting – although it sounds like you need to be in the right frame of mind for it!


    1. Anna Karenina is one of my favorite Russian novels, and so is Dr. Zhivago…this was nothing like those classic reads. It gives a much more modern perspective of Russia today, and I hope its not indicative of a universal experience for most women.


  4. The title of this book is more humorous than the contents. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s book sounds like it would make me more grateful for my own lifestyle and freedoms. Wonderful review, Bellezza!


    1. I had the same impression, that the title was a completely different type of book from what the text turned out to express. Truly, Suko, it makes us grateful for our own lives and freedoms as you say.


  5. Wow. Sounds like one of those books that stays with you (and makes you grateful you don’t live where these characters do). Have you ever read Snow Drops by A.D. Miller? It’s set in Moscow and gives you a very eye-opening look at life in that city. I really loved it for how unexpected it was (and how well-written).


    1. I haven’t read Snow Drops, so thanks for that suggestion. Somehow, I’m absolutely fascinated by all things Russian, and I’ve long wanted to go to Moscow (or at least St. Petersburg). With things as tumultuous as they are now in the world, I wonder if I’ll get the chance, but at least we can go there through books, right?


  6. This sounds like a very emotional and hard (but good) read. I am not very familiar with contemporary Russian fiction, somehow still stuck in the times of the classics. I need to move to this century.

    Thanks for this lovely review.


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