Lizka and Her Men

Lots of books have been written about young women whose beauty and terrible taste in men lead them to withered destitution. A less common story is of a heroine whose insatiable appetite for romantic entanglement becomes a source of discovery rather than shame. For Lizka, a 17-year-old in perestroika-era Russia, one scandal follows the next, with no apologies for the heartbreak she causes, the windows she breaks, and the lovers she leaves behind. What Lizka most values is the future. Her conviction that relationships create opportunities is what makes Ikonnikov’s first novel a narrative greater than the sum of its emotional parts. After being chased out of her parent’s house in Lopukhov for rumored salacious behavior (she was raped), Lizka moves to a new town, enrolls in school, and works as a yard keeper. She meets her first boyfriend during a short stint in jail and, unsurprisingly, the much older Misha, a notorious gambler, turns out to be a losing proposition. During the next two years, living with a Party official named Victor, Lizka studies to become a typist, earning $100 a month. She abandons Victor for Artur, a trolley bus driver, and then leaves Artur for a poet named Max. None of these men make her happy; finally, Lizka screams, “I want to be alone! I’m going to buy myself a dog!” Soon after, of course, she falls in love with someone new. This preoccupation with dead end romance provides a perfectly skewered backdrop for the swirling chaos of 1989 Russia, when it isn’t at all clear what direction the country will take. Ikonnikov’s style is marked by a close to the ground quality; as his characters obsess over the future, he keeps them tethered with humdrum tasks and absurdities out of their control. The final chapter is written from the perspective of another of Lizka’s paramours, and it’s a disappointment to lose her spirited voice. Even at her most vulnerable, she makes decisions without equivocation, knowing that all endings allow room for fresh starts. –