Add the female protagonist of Forty Rooms, Olga Grushin’s moving new novel, to the roster of characters who have grappled with the age-old question of art vs. domesticity. Should one lead a life dedicated to an artistic pursuit—in this case, the writing of poetry—or to one’s family? The dilemma her protagonist faces may be eternal, but the device Grushin uses to tell her story is unique: Each of the 40 chapters occurs in a room of either a library or the narrator’s current residence.
The shifts in Grushin’s narrative style are a subtle way to underscore the difficulty of this question. The opening chapters, during which the unnamed protagonist grows up in Russia, are told in first person present tense. In these enchanting early pages, we learn that the narrator is prone to visions, first of a mermaid who sifts through her mother’s jewels, and then of a bearded, barefoot man who encourages the narrator’s artistic inclinations.
Later, when she attends university in the United States, the novel shifts to first person past tense. While her ambitious childhood friend Olga, the first Soviet to attend an American university, gives interviews and enjoys the limelight, the narrator quietly pursues her degree and experiments with writing poetry cycles.
The novel is told in third person, once the protagonist marries Paul Caldwell, a business major from a wealthy family. Soon, the woman who once dressed in thrift-store clothing is living in a fancy home with a ballroom and gold-plated faucets. Now referred to as Mrs. Caldwell, she gives up her artistic dreams and becomes stay-at-home mom to six children. But she fantasizes about the life she could have had and wonders whether she made the right choices.
Grushin occasionally succumbs to cliché, such as having the narrator examine her reflection in a mirror before assessing her life, but, for the most part, Forty Rooms is a sensitive and exquisitely told meditation on the pleasures of art.