From the Publisher
"Deirdre McNamer writes with a slow-burning brilliance."
"McNamer writes with extraordinary emotional acuity and with a keen sense of the small detail that says it all. . . . Quietly devastating."
"A careful writer, a master of the small, telling observation."
The New York Times Book Review
To me...[Francesca's] compulsion to see herself from the outside in doesn't feel like a falling apart; insteadit's more like a coming together the need to meld self and identity that one usually associates with coming of age. And this is what I liked most about My Russian....McNamer is a careful writera master of the smalltelling observationbut her plotting slows things down. She could learn a lesson from Tom Wolfe: You can't try too hardor it shows. The New York Times Book Review
Each detail...is offered as evidence in a kind of interior tribunal against her culture, and we are to believe that the evidence indicates a broader doom than the personal one the narrator feels....McNamer is a writer to watch in the coming years...
Hungry Mind Review
Nothing about this remarkable novel turns out in a conventional or predictable way....Francesca is more credible...than any fictional character in such circumstances in recent memory.
Her family thinks she is vacationing in Greece, but in fact Francesca Woodbridge is hiding 11 blocks from her house, spying, remembering, and examining her life. She watches her teenage son and her husband, Ren, who some months earlier was wounded by an intruder. She remembers her lush garden, her Russian gardener, and the affair they had. Her memories spiral around the reader, each acute observation illuminating her past history and current situation, each reflection adding layers to this rich and lovely novel. Francesca remembers watching ash from erupting Mt. St. Helens cover her town, and she recounts what Yuri told her of the Chernobyl explosion. In the end, readers find out who shot Ren, but by then the mystery has faded into the larger plot, and Francescas quest for meaning has taken center stage. McNamer (One Sweet Quarrel, LJ 2/15/94) creates a character to care about in a bold, splendid novel. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/99]Yvette Weller Olson, City Univ. Lib., Renton, WA
To me...[Francesca's] compulsion to see herself from the outside in doesn't feel like a falling apart; instead, it's more like a coming together the need to meld self and identity that one usually associates with coming of age. And this is what I liked most about My Russian....McNamer is a careful writer, a master of the small, telling observation, but her plotting slows things down. She could learn a lesson from Tom Wolfe: You can't try too hard, or it shows.
The New York Times Book Review
With the first lines of My Russian, McNamer draws you hypnotically into the past and present lives of Francesca Woodbridge, a woman in search of an authentic life...McNamer tells a compelling story...My Russian is wonderful, a feast of imagery and emotion. McNamer celebrated the county of beauty found in ordinary life and mourns the loss of love and humanity that seems its inevitable companion.
A provocative character study of a "mad housewife" at odds with her family and community is the most interesting feature of this ambitious, flawed third novel from the Montana author of Rima in the Weeds (1991) and One Sweet Quarrel (1994). The story's narrated by Francesca Woodbridge, a former public relations consultant who takes a vacation from her husband Renton ("Ren") and teenaged son (Mack), while the former is laboriously recuperating after being shot by an unknown burglar. That's improbability number one. While in Greece, Francesca leaves her tour group (ostensibly for a private trip to nearby islands); fabricates a new identity; then flies back to the States, holing up in a motel not far from her home, and spends a week in disguise, walking about her neighborhood incognito, observingunrecognized, except by a neighbor's dog (improbability number two), until a random stabbing incident blows her cover. McNamer's shuttling narrative juxtaposes Francesca's intrigue-laden week with fragmented memories of her girlhood, disappointing marriage (to an attorney who evolved from liberal firebrand to spokesman for polluters and calculating social climber), and affairs (most notably with Yuri, their former Russian gardener, who inevitably becomes a prime suspect for that shooting). Francesca returns to Greece, then back home, as expectedbut for a surprising climax in which that intruder's identity is revealed; a corollary to her unillusioned discovery that "exhilaration has virtually nothing to do with loyalty or kindness and everything to do with the experience of your own powers." This is a curious novel, with an oddly opaque protagonist who doesn't really know why she acts asshe does. Sometimes that's arrestingly dramatic; more often, it translates as McNamer's failure to make her believable. McNamer's edgy, graveyard-witty, borderline-wisecracking voice has its charms, but this time out it's largely wasted on a character and a situation that are hard to care about.
Read an Excerpt
ELEVEN BLOCKS from this darkened room, I have a husband and a handsome house. My bathrobe hangs from a hook in that house; my gardening clogs rest by the door; my furious son goes in and out, his demiwife in tow. In a drawer, in a desk, in that house, an itinerary tells them I fly home in a dozen days. The date is highlighted and starred.
When I leave this room, I wear a wig and some odd clothing I bought in Athens. Just like that, I've become a person who no longer fits the shape and color of my absent self, as it exists in the minds of my husband and son. They would look straight at this version of me and see no one they knew. I'm quite sure of that.
I am here to assess the situation. I'm here, let's say, to spy on my waiting life.
The couple next door in 202pastel knits, running shoesleft this morning. They were here for a visit with a floundering daughter whose house is too cramped for guests. They liked the motel better anyway, because they could talk about her when they returned to the room each night. And the father could cough at alarming and luxurious length and no one would glance sideways, no one would prescribe. His wife stopped doing that decades ago.
They are the sort of old ones who seem to be meltingall the corners growing rounded, the head sagging forward, the body folding into itself in a whispery version of the way the lit-up monks folded themselves into their brilliant oblivion. Such a thing to think! But they keep coming to me, these illuminations of the ordinary people I call to mind. At this moment, yes, those old people sit on the edge of a bed worrying over a restaurant receipt, their white hair beginning to smoke.
Yesterday on the elevator they introduced themselves as Mary-Doris and Ed and told me the outlines of the situation with the daughter. Mary-Doris confided that she wouldn't mind walking around town a bit, get the kinks out, but Ed wouldn't do it. He has to drive everywhere. The rare times she gets him out walking, all he does is complain about the kinds of pets people keep, and the kinds of yards, and all the foreign cars. He worked for GM in Detroit for forty-five years and still wears his GM baseball cap.
As she told me about him, he watched her mildly, hands in his pockets. I seemed to know, looking at him, that he had no inter-mediary zone between his social self and his stark 4 A.M. self, no place in his mind to keep company with himself. You see these people on planes. They try small talk with the person next to them; it doesn't work; they eventually pick up the airline magazine and flip through it as if it's something that fell off the back of a truck.
Mary-Doris said that she had been a housekeeper for a family in Grosse Pointe for almost twenty years, that she had retired last year and what did I think they'd given her as a going-away present? Some stocks, I said. A gift certificate. A toaster oven. No, none of it. They had given her a papered bloodhound, worth a lot. But this dog ate so ravenously and was so nervy and big that she'd sold it for seventy-five dollars when they moved to their retirement house in Arizona. They called the creature the Disposer.
This morning I put on my taupe pantsuit and my walking shoes and my black wig, and I knocked at 202. I'd heard them moving around since six. I asked Mary-Doris if she wanted to go for a walk. She'd be good cover. She'd make me fully invisible.
I'm here, let's say, to correct the course of my life.
We walked slowly south, away form the Trocadero Motel and the interstate, and made our way into the university area with its spreading maples and its old Colonials, Tudors, viny bungalows. There stood my big house, windows flashing in the morning sun, the sprinklers sending up neat water fans. It looked serene and polished in that early light, as if it had never known trouble or had locked it away. The lawn was freshly mowed, and the clematis bloomed on the trellis. Behind the trellis stretched my landscaped yard, so carefully wild. The work of my Russian gardener.
He made a new yard, and then he was gone. And now it is up to us.
"There's a pretty place," said Mary-Doris, squinting for a longer look at my house. "That trellis looks a little raggedy, but nothing a few minutes with the snippers couldn't fix. Of course, these people hire the work done. Someone to design it allsomeone to keep the weeds pulled." Then she told me about the rock garden she'd made around their modular house out there in the desert where they lived now. And I told her that I too hoped to have a garden someday, when I got my life back on track. She studied me.