Olga Grushin’s Cinderella novel, like her life, is no fairy tale
On the Shelf
The Charmed Wife
By Olga Grushin
Putnam: 288 pages, $27
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Via Zoom from her office in Maryland, the author has an important caveat for both fans of her genre-hopping novels and newcomers drawn by the premise of a revisionist fairy tale.
“I hope people come to this book with an open mind,” she says, “because it’s not at all a traditional retelling but a genre-bending mix of fantasy and realism.” Grushin’s Cinderella lives in a three-dimensional reality that sometimes overlaps with the author’s own life. Or as Grushin puts it: “Expect talking mice, yes, but also expect divorce proceedings and custody arrangements.”
“The Charmed Wife” is a changeup from her haunting 2006 debut novel, “The Dream Life of Sukhanov,” about a Soviet apparatchik who descends into a particularly Russian kind of madness, and her follow-ups, “The Line” and “Forty Rooms.” These contained elements of surrealist allegory reminiscent of forebears like Bulgakov and contemporaries like Victor Pelevin. But a comic riff on an ancient fairy tale feels like fresh terrain.
It didn’t feel that way for Grushin. Her upbringing in Moscow and Prague steeped the author in fairy tales from Russia and Eastern Europe. “Prague is really a fairy-tale place in itself,” Grushin says. “During the five years we lived there, we had a wonderful library. I would check out stacks of books and devour them, and fairy tales were always my favorites.”
One feature that binds all of Grushin’s novels is authorial obsession. “I don’t write the same book twice because every book is something I must live with for two to four years,” she says. “I have so many interests, and a mental checklist of subjects I’d like to explore in depth, be it painting or ballet or ancient history. When I start a new novel, it has to keep me fully engaged for a while.”
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Grushin, 49, may have been born and raised in the Soviet Union, but she writes in English — a decision dictated as much by chance as by choice. She was brought up in a culturally sophisticated household, her father a prominent sociologist, and educated at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and Moscow State University. At the latter institution, a visiting professor from Emory University, Ellen Mickiewicz, asked whether she would like to attend Emory.
“I said ‘Of course!’ but thought nothing more of it; it was unheard of at the time.” The Berlin Wall was (just barely) still standing. “And suddenly I received an official envelope with a scholarship offer.” Upon arrival, “I found out I was the first Russian student ever to study for a four-year American degree.” She majored in sociology and religion and took courses in literature, one of them taught by Mickiewicz’s husband, Denis.
“We could submit our work in Russian,” Grushin says, “but he asked me to try writing my essays in English instead because he thought my English was, as he put it, ‘more powerful’ than my Russian, ‘stripped of unnecessary flourishes.’ It helped me, I think, when I eventually made the difficult decision to switch to English.”
Grushin had known from “the age of 4” that she wanted to be a writer. “The first book I ever wrote was called ‘Tale of a Lazy Princess and a Brave Prince.’ I was 7.” Fairy-tale relationships and their complications would become a recurring theme in her work and her life.
Grushin got married while at Emory, and after graduation the couple moved to Washington, D.C. They divorced shortly afterward. When she married again, the newlyweds made an agreement: Grushin would leave her editorial position at Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard-affiliated research institute, and pursue her fiction while raising the couple’s children. If writing did not work out, she could always go back to work.
Without an MFA or any kind of writing community, Grushin simply sent out short stories until she’d published 10. “I actually wrote 11, but once I had 10 accepted, I thought I could start approaching agents with the manuscript of ‘Sukhanov,’” she says.
She finished her debut novel a month before having her first child, a son. Five years later, “The Line” came out a month before her daughter arrived. “But that was not a trend,” she says laughing. “No more children with novels three and four.”
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When her daughter was born, Grushin eagerly brought out her editions of Charles Perrault and Alexander Afanasiev to read aloud. “But my daughter said, ‘Princesses are so boring!’ and ‘Who needs princes?’ and wanted to hear only about the dragons and the tricksters. She didn’t care for happy endings at all.”
Grushin laughs about the rejection of something that captivated her as a child. “Of course, as I grew older, I saw that the women in many of these stories were actually quite subversive,” she says. “I read a lot of fairy-tale theory while working on my book. One idea that struck me is that the oldest stories, the darkest ones, were probably told by peasant women. The fluffier, romantic versions with knights rescuing maidens came later and were written mostly by upper-class men.”
“The Charmed Wife,” while not autobiographical in any of its plot twists, does tie into Grushin’s life: She and her second husband separated six years ago and have since divorced. The protagonist starts out in a fairy-tale life, wedded to handsome Prince Roland. After several years of married life, including two children, Cinderella wakes up dissatisfied. Her quest to find a meaningful existence (as she assumes her real name, Jane) will be filled with familiar figures, from a fairy godmother to a charming beekeeper and a bumbling magician — even a pair of mice whose offspring form an unusually tumultuous dynasty.
“The mice, their lives and community, are essential to the story,” Grushin says. “I think of them as a sort of upstairs/downstairs component of the book. While all these humans are dancing waltzes and obsessing over romance, the mice are overthrowing governments, engaging in wars and cultural revolutions.” Cinderella’s story, too, grows more complex, shape-shifting as she moves through different eras.
Grushin, for her part, now finds herself in “the happiest relationship I’ve ever had, in part because I came to it from a place of not needing to be with anyone at all. I tried to put some of that excitement of finding a new kind of life into my book.” Grushin’s partner of three years is a member of her pandemic isolation pod. “My children are at home too, so my writing life is a bit chaotic right now. I don’t have any kind of regular schedule. Everything has been upended.”
Nevertheless, she has a novel in progress: “I was tentatively planning a magical book set in Prague, when another urgent idea just overtook everything, and I’ll be writing that first. I’m afraid it’s rather dark and dystopian.” Grushin adds that she would need to live at least a thousand years to write all the books she dreams of writing — a dream as fantastical, but productive, as the idea of “happily ever after.”
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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