This collection of short stories is rather dubiously and sardonically titled "Love Stories", but of course, they're really nothing of the sort. Soviet/Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya traffics in the sort of love in which children drift sadly apart from their parents, husbands and wives are continually philandering, alcohol poisons relationships and most everyone's grim, poor and barely holding it together. In other words, great Russian literature! I had a blast with this book. I read a review of it and instantly knew it was for me, and it didn't disappoint. It turns out Petrushevskaya's been writing for many years – she's now 70 – and her work was suppressed in the Soviet era; not because it was political, but because it was so dark, and because it showed a sad ordinariness in the broken lives and lost souls of the Communist system, the people who had to live within and under it for over 70 years. The stories collected here were written in spurts from the 1970s until just before the book's publication.
Petrushevskaya will typically, in these very short stories, quickly establish a central character – usually a girl or woman who lives in the tiny Moscow apartment blocks that the Soviets built en masse for the people. This girl or woman will often have conflict in her family; perhaps a loving mother (we learn in the translator's introduction that Petrushevskaya herself had a rotten childhood, redeemed by her mother's love) but not much else. Often her career is a dead end, and her romantic prospects are dismal; or, if she has a husband, he's a laggard, a liar or a drunk. When and if children come into the picture, it's not always a good thing, and it usually means that the father is either absent, or about to be.
One story that really grabbed me is called "Like Penelope", and strangely, it's one of the few semi-uplifting tales in the book. Our central character this time is Oksana, who lives with her mother Nina, who adores her, but "who is the only person who loved her". Through some interesting and strange family dynamics, she initially resists, then accepts a new dress her mom and grandmother-in-law have clumsily made her. Her confidence and beauty is transformed the moment she decides to embrace and wear it, at which point an estranged relative, her grandmother-in-law's grandson, bursts into the door during a drunken fight in the apartment downstairs that has just ended in murder. The relative is instantly captivated, and it's clear that Oksana will finally be loved by someone other than her mother. It's typical of Petrushevskaya to populate these stories with women like Nina, who want to do well and do right with their very limited means, only using their capacity for love in a place where there's not much of it to go around.
The picture one gets is probably one not much different from your conception of anonymous and desperate urban living on the margins of Russian society. It's a feminine take on the mundane day-to-day drabness of this sort of life, yet with life-changing moments like birth, death, marriage, divorce, heartbreak and familial inheritance that alter an individual's life dramatically; unfortunately, usually not for the better.