By Caroline Adderson
At a pair of Cambridge student-society events almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf delivered linked lectures. For her talks (published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own) Woolf invented a Judith Shakespeare, born as intellectually capable as her acclaimed brother but profoundly curtailed by gender conventions. In Woolf’s account Judith was ultimately a humiliated pregnant runaway who committed suicide, her potential eclipsed by social mores.
There may be an echo of Woolf’s imaginary case-study in Caroline Adderson’s A Russian Sister.
The curious novel opens in 1889 after the embarrassing catastrophe of Anton Chekhov’s The Wood Demon (a play that eventually became Uncle Vanya). In the aftermath Masha, the sister of Moscow’s “celebrity” writer, looks on in worry and passes through cluttered rooms reflecting on her “completely unhappy family.”
In later scenes this “writer’s sister” attends to household duties, performs clerical work for Anton and teaches girls (half-heartedly, at best: “Later she anesthetized them with verses to memorize. This got her through the day.”).
In general, when Masha’s not worrying about her brother’s writing, health, travel plans and romantic affairs, she’s concerned about her quarrelsome family or her own chances for both marital happiness and occupational success.
“Antosha depends on me,” she exclaims about her brother, whose talent and fame cast an immense shadow. For the time being she’s content enough with the arrangement.
Following Ellen in Pieces, a fiery, captivating and utterly heartbreaking Vancouver-set novel, Adderson’s turn to late-nineteenth-century Russia is a far more puzzling and less immediate reading experience.
When the historical record does choose to acknowledge the actual Maria Chekhov at all, she’s noted as an accomplished teacher; and, after her famous brother’s death from tuberculosis in 1904, she acted as the director of the Chekhov Museum in Yalta for about a third of her long life (she lived until age 93).
Rather than represent the entirety of the woman’s decades (tumultuous ones, assuredly, under Nicholas II, Lenin and Stalin), Adderson lingers on a few youthful years.
To its detriment the novel — a “work of imagination based on fact” that borrows “many details and lines” from Anton’s plays and stories as well as “paraphrased, rephrased and occasionally redirected” excerpts from his letters — can feel static and stage-bound, an academic exercise.
Over four lengthy “acts” (concluding in 1896), Adderson conjures an assortment of room and garden exchanges from a handful of Masha’s pivotal years. The brother and sister squabble and exchange witty barbs; Masha reflects on love, fulfilment, family and her growing resentments.
The scenes can feel like drawing-room comedy but overly long and amorphous, a series of everyday conversations that go nowhere in particular. Hundreds of pages in, the cumulative effect was fidgety boredom, for this reader, and frequent questions related to where the plot was heading.
The scenes that do flash and sizzle — from a pet mongoose and business venture involving dying used tea leaves, to Olga, a women sent to “a mental hospital to be cured of female brilliance,” and Klara, “with brown eyes so far apart it wore you out to look from one to another” — result when Adderson treats her source material irreverently, and when, to borrow from Masha, the author portrays the family drama as “a farce on an extended run.”
When it’s lively, A Russian Sister captivates. When it’s not, reading turns into a chore.