Forty Rooms

Forty Rooms

by Olga Grushin

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Overview

The internationally acclaimed author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov now returns to gift us with Forty Rooms, which outshines even that prizewinning novel.

Totally original in conception and magnificently executed, Forty Rooms is mysterious, withholding, and ultimately emotionally devastating. Olga Grushin is dealing with issues of women’s identity, of women’s choices, that no modern novel has explored so deeply.

“Forty rooms” is a conceit: it proposes that a modern woman will inhabit forty rooms in her lifetime. They form her biography, from childhood to death. For our protagonist, the much-loved child of a late marriage, the first rooms she is aware of as she nears the age of five are those that make up her family’s Moscow apartment. We follow this child as she reaches adolescence, leaves home to study in America, and slowly discovers sexual happiness and love. But her hunger for adventure and her longing to be a great poet conspire to kill the affair. She seems to have made her choice. But one day she runs into a college classmate. He is sure of his path through life, and he is protective of her. (He is also a great cook.) They drift into an affair and marriage. What follows are the decades of births and deaths, the celebrations, material accumulations, and home comforts—until one day, her children grown and gone, her husband absent, she finds herself alone except for the ghosts of her youth, who have come back to haunt and even taunt her.

Compelling and complex, Forty Rooms is also profoundly affecting, its ending shattering but true. We know that Mrs. Caldwell (for that is the only name by which we know her) has died. Was it a life well lived? Quite likely. Was it a life complete? Does such a life ever really exist? Life is, after all, full of trade-offs and choices. Who is to say her path was not well taken? It is this ambiguity that is at the heart of this provocative novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101982334
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 480,118
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Olga Grushin is a Russian-born award-winning writer whose work has been translated into fifteen languages. Her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction and for England’s Orange Award for New Writers. The New York Times chose it as a Notable Book of the Year, and both it and her second novel, The Line, were among The Washington Post’s Ten Best Books of the Year (2007, 2010). In 2007, Granta named Grushin one of the Best Young American Novelists. Forty Rooms is her third novel. Grushin was born in Moscow, moved to the United States as a teenager, and now lives outside Washington, D.C., with her two children.

Read an Excerpt

BATHROOM:

THE TREE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD

The bathroom is the first place to emerge from the haze of nonbeing. It is cramped and smells sweet and changes from time to time. When the world outside hardens with dark and cold, the sky-blue tiles grow icy and sting my naked soles, but pipes vibrate in a low, comforting hum and the water is hot and delightful; I plunge into it with a heedless splash, rushing to slide into soap suds up to my chin before the prickle of goose bumps overtakes me. Then the world swells stuffy and bright, and now the coolness of the floor feels nice, but the pipes lie chilled and inert; I watch the stream from a just-boiled teakettle hit the cold water inside the plastic bucket before I climb gingerly into the empty tub and wait for the sponge to dribble lukewarm rivulets down my back.

Most evenings the hands that touch me are the ones I know best, light and gentle, with a delicate ring on one finger and fingernails lovely and pink like flower petals. With the hands comes a voice, a soft, quiet voice that sings to me – though the songs themselves sound sad. Other times, the hands are harder, their fingers thick and blunt, the fingernails cut short, almost to the quick, one finger squeezed tight by a plain golden band that seems far too small for it; but these hands are never rough, and I like them just as much, not least because I am less used to them and I feel curious, and also because the voice of the blunter hands does not sing but tells jokes. The voice is firm at the edges, and the jokes are loud, large with mooing roosters and oinking cats, and a naughty gnome who comes only on Sundays to talk of messy meals and chamber pots and other things equally funny and gross, and I laugh and laugh until bubbles spurt out of my nose.

But sometimes, rarely, the hands are different – large, loose-skinned, and bony, smelling of smoke, their long fingers stiff, their joints like the bark of the old tree by the swing set in the courtyard. These hands move with an odd, crablike grace, barely touching the sponge, forgetting why they are there, emitting faint clatter and jingle as they alight on the side of the tub; open-mouthed with amazement, I watch a bracelet of pink oval stones slide up and down the withered wrist, each stone carved with a pale woman’s face, thin and elegant, glowing from within. And the voice, like the hands, is withered and straying; and it does not sing, and it does not laugh – it tells stories instead.

The passing of seasons, another winter giving way, another summer cresting, brings with it Grandmother’s yearly visit. I find myself waiting for the stories above all else.

They never have the same beginnings – no matter how much I beg for some half-remembered tale, Grandmother will not repeat herself – but they all lead to the same place, a hidden kingdom of manifold marvels. The kingdom is reached in a hundred different ways, though few ever gain entrance to it. Some stumble upon it after a lifelong search, having wandered through treacherous forests and climbed snowy mountains, while others are plunged there headlong, without any warning, without expectation, having tasted of a strange drink or chased a chance shadow around the corner or stared for a moment too long into the mirror. (One little girl with the same name as mine arrives in the kingdom wet and wrapped in a towel: she is taking a bath when she gets swept down the drain.) The kingdom is home to amazing creatures and things – candle flames that have run away from their candles, warring armies of spoons and forks, flocks of traveling belfry bells, a beautiful blind fairy, a mouse who dreams only of dragons, a knight who has lost his horse – and all the creatures ceaselessly travel along the kingdom’s many paths, some straight and simple, others twisted and full of dark adventure, all winding their way toward the kingdom’s secret heart. There, at the center of the world, where all the paths converge, grows a wondrous tree whose branches touch the skies, and there, by its vast ancient roots, the creatures halt and wait – wait for the leaves to fall.

“And why do they want those leaves so much?” I ask, as I always do. “Are they made of gold?”

“They aren’t gold,” my grandmother answers, “but they are precious all the same. One side of each leaf bears a name, and only the person whose name it is can read the words on the leaf’s other side. And only one leaf on the tree has your name on it, so if you aren’t there waiting for it when it falls, you miss it forever.”

“And what words are they, Grandmother?”

“The most important words in the world,” she replies.

“Yes, but what do they say?”

Her fingers click with faint impatience against the tub’s edge.

“They are different for every person, so I can’t tell you.”

I sink back in the bath. No matter how her tales begin, they always end this way: she will add nothing more. Whenever she starts, I hope that tonight will be different, that tonight she will tell me the rest. But she never does. She is a hundred years old, I think angrily to myself, and she is more stubborn than anyone I know; she likes to hoard her secrets. I sit in the bath willing myself not to cry, the skin of my fingers and toes puckered from being too long in the water. My grandmother has forgotten the sponge yet again; she is staring at the tiles above my head, and her pale red-rimmed eyes have that unseeing look I catch from time to time, like the blank eyes of the carved women on her old bracelet. And suddenly I think: maybe she doesn’t even know how the story ends, maybe she arrived there too late to catch her own leaf.

All at once I feel terribly excited. I look at the drain. Suds are being sucked into its whirlpool, and I glimpse a slice of my pink scrubbed cheek, a corner of my brown eye reflected in its silver curve, and something else too, a tiny elfin face grinning at me, beckoning me closer with a hand like a twig before vanishing in a splash of foam. I decide that right away, without losing another minute, I too will slip down the drain, and ride the soapy waters to the mysterious depths of the hidden kingdom, and brave its crooked paths alongside dragons and spoons, and reach the tree at the heart of the world – and when my leaf falls, I will be there to read the words and tell everyone about it. But immediately I grow sad as I remember that I’m only four years old – four years and three quarters – and I don’t yet know how to read.

My mother sticks her head in the door. I feel a draft of cold air.

“Time for her milk,” she says. “Mama, you’re sitting on her towel.”

My grandmother stands up with slow, injured dignity and sails out of the bathroom.

 

2. MOTHER’S BEDROOM:

THE JEWELRY BOX

One evening in December I enter my mother’s bedroom to wish her good night, but my mother is not there. A mermaid is sitting on her bed instead. I know she is a mermaid right away, even though I am unable to make out the tail under the folds of her narrow skirt of the faintest gray color, the color of morning mist above the waters of our dacha pond. She is bending her long pale tresses over my mother’s jewelry box, which she is holding open in her lap; I can see the silky fabric of her strange skirt stretched tight over her knees beneath the lacquered edge of the box.

I feel enchanted by the presence of the mermaid but also deeply grieved. I love my mother’s jewelry box. It is made of shiny black wood, and on its lid two pearly girls with wide belts and sticks in their hair fan a third girl, while all around them tiny trees shimmer with rosy blossoms in a walled-in garden. It is the one object in this room filled with wonders that I long to possess, but I am never allowed to touch it. On my last birthday, when I turned six, I begged and begged until, with a small, patient sigh, my mother pulled open a drawer, maneuvered the box from under the layers of folded nightgowns and stockings, and let me marvel at the princess-like sparkling for a brief minute; but she did not show me anything closely. It makes me sad to find a stranger – even if she is beautiful, even if she is a mermaid – handling that box as though she owns it.

I am about to tiptoe out when the mermaid looks up and beckons me toward her.

“Do you want me to show you?” she asks.

Her voice is like my mother’s, but her eyes are not: they too are green, but their shifting depths lack the familiar misty softness; they glitter instead with joyous, hard brilliance, just like the brilliance I can already see trapped inside the jewelry box.

Now and then there are strange creatures to be stumbled upon in my mother’s bedroom – it is my parents’ bedroom really, but I have always thought of it as my mother’s alone – yet the mermaid makes me uneasy. She seems almost dangerous, more unpredictable than any of the others, not in the least like the kindly plump woman in the oval painting above the armchair who rambles about Brussels lace and satin slippers at teatime, or the two yellow-winged fairies who every spring morning slide down the sunbeams onto the dresser to splash in my mother’s perfume bottles, or the man smiling with bright white teeth under a wiry mustache who used to pay afternoon calls the summer I was five. (I liked him best of all because once or twice, just before he gently pushed me out into the hallway and locked the door behind me, he had given me a chocolate candy bar in crinkly wrappers with unfamiliar letters on the side, and also because he possessed magic powers and was invisible to everyone but me. “That child has such a wild imagination,” my mother said laughing gaily after I had mentioned the visitor with the mustache one night at supper, and my father laughed too, though not as gaily, and ruffled my hair. I felt offended at not being believed, but more than that, I regretted letting go of something that had been mine and mine alone: I found that I liked having secrets all my own. After that, I never said anything to anyone about the things I saw in my mother’s bedroom.)

The mermaid has already forgotten about me. She is staring into the box, moving her fingers over the velvet insides, as if remembering some tune she once played on a piano. I sit down on the edge of the bed, elated but wary. The mermaid begins to speak, but she is not speaking to me; she caresses this or that ring, this or that pendant, and tells long, winding tales I cannot follow.

“These cupid earrings,” she says, “have been in the family for four generations. Your great-grandmother received them as a sign of special favor from the tsar’s youngest uncle. He had them presented to her the night she premiered as Dulcinea. She had gifts from many men, of course, but this was the only thing she held on to when forced to sell off all her possessions in the civil war. One wonders why she kept them. She struggled so to feed her children, and the earrings would have brought in bread enough to last a month. But women in this family have always had their mysteries . . .” She pauses to take a sip from a nearly empty glass of dark red liquid on my mother’s nightstand. “Of course, it was well after her Dulcinea days that she married your great-grandfather and had your grandfather and the twins. But could there have been more to the Grand Duke anecdote? No one to ask about it now – all that’s left are two enamel cupids, half a rumor, and maybe, just maybe, a thimble of royal blood.”

“Is this my great-grandmother the ballet dancer?” I ask, confused. “And who is Dulcinea? And what is a thimble?” – but she does not answer, only lightly trails her fingers over the golden fire imprisoned in the box, and goes on talking.

“And see this ring? See how the emerald is uncut, rough and enormous, like some green, misshapen bird’s egg? This came from an ancient icon, from one of those priceless frames set with stones big as rocks. So many were vandalized in the revolution, hacked apart, hidden by drunks in rotting village coffers. Your grandfather got the emerald at the end of the war, traded it from another soldier for a length of smoked sausage and a box of German sweets, then kept it for years in an empty salt shaker. Eventually he had it set for Elena, your grandmother – a simple pewter setting, he could afford nothing more.”

“What does ‘vandalize’ mean?” I ask. “When was the revolution?”

In the circle of soft yellow lamplight the jewels inside their dark nests shift with hidden, treacherous fire. The mermaid takes another sip of the red liquid, tipping the glass into her mouth so abruptly that some drops spill onto the blanket. In profile she seems just like my mother, but every time she moves, every time she speaks, every time she looks past me, not hearing my questions, I am filled anew with the knowledge that she is not.

“And this bracelet I’ve had since I was a child. It reminds me of all the mornings spent searching for bits of amber in the sand after the tide.”

I am pleased to hear something I understand at last. My mother’s family came from the Baltics; she grew up spending summers on the Latvian coast. It must have been there that she met the mermaid. I was wrong to ever find the mermaid dangerous, I think with relief. As I shift closer to her gleaming gray flanks, I am startled into pity by a sudden thought. “But isn’t the Baltic sea too cold in winter? What do you do if it turns to ice?”

She drops the bracelet back into the box and glances down at me, her metallic green gaze slipping over my face with a swift, cold touch I can almost feel on my skin.

“But that’s enough, you are too little to care about the past,” she says, and while her tone seems light, the chill of the faraway sea is there, underneath.

My pity abandons me, as does my relief. Once again I am nervous.

She stands up, balancing the box in one hand and the glass in the other.

“Come to the mirror with me.”

Together we leave the reassuring circle of light and move into the graying dusk. The mirror over the dresser is oval, curvy, and gilded. On evenings such as this, wintry and still, I like to come and look at my mother’s room nestled into its quiet pool. The mirror room is smaller than the real one and has no angles, filled instead with a fuzzy, muted, familiar warmth, so much like my mother’s soft presence. But now the two of us are reflected in it, myself in my short white nightgown with green parrots, the mermaid a slim undulation of shadow behind my shoulder, and the mirror room seems different, cold and sharp-edged and mysterious, exciting in a new way, like something marvelous yet harmful, something forbidden, like – like a lollipop I once stole from the kitchen and devoured in crunching, glistening half-licks, half-bites in bed at night, under the covers, without cleaning my teeth afterward.

“Here, let’s try this on you, this was your father’s gift when you were born, it will be yours someday,” the mermaid says as she sets the jewelry box on the dresser and picks up a chain on which dangles a prim little cross of delicate pearls. But I have just spied something else – something I like so much more. Reaching out, I close my fingers on a necklace of small round stones, each kernel of blood-red glow in its own frame of darkness.

“This,” I say. “I want this.”

Something sharp and hurt flashes in the mermaid’s eyes, and when she takes the necklace out of my hand, her movement is not gentle: she rips the strand through my fingers, scratching my palm, surprising me into a little cry. I expect her to throw the necklace back into the box, and slam it shut, and push me away; but a flush grows in her face instead, and suddenly she smiles – the first smile I see, not a kind smile, but oh, so beautiful. She smiles her strange smile, at once brittle and hard, and lays the necklace against the parrots on my gown. In the shadows of the mirror it glints stark and red, like a gash I got on my knee when I was four and fell running on a piece of glass.

“A friend gave it to me,” the mermaid says in a defiant voice, as if challenging someone. “A long time ago.”

We are silent then, both of us looking at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the lady in the oval painting purse her lips and turn away with disapproval, but I continue to stare at my reflection, and after a while I too begin to seem different, as if the silvery, dangerous, shimmering sea were rising within my being. Around us the evening deepens, the lamp by the bed glows brilliant and distant, and slowly the room is transformed into an immense jewelry box, the blue velvet of the night enveloping us tightly, and the mermaid’s deceiving eyes are emeralds now, and the congealed drop at the bottom of her glass a ruby, and on the dresser, just between the tray of portly perfume bottles and the clock that always shows the wrong time, there rests a treasure bright and dark, an unfamiliar, thrilling treasure filled to the brim with stories I do not yet understand, stories of guilty gifts, impoverished dancers, ruined churches, wars and revolutions, the grown-up, momentous things of pain and beauty and time.

From behind the door a sound bursts out, mechanical and persistent, like the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker, and I swing around, startled, then realize what it is. When I turn back, the mermaid is gone, just like that, and my mother is fastening her old gray robe around her. “Your father is working, we must be quiet,” she says in a near whisper as she leans over me and fumbles with the clasp of the necklace under my hair. Stupidly I watch while she neatens up the earrings and bracelets in their plush compartments, closes the lid with care, slides the box back into the drawer. “And it’s time for you to go to bed.”

I want to tell her about the mermaid, to ask her a question, but something stops me – whether the flat intonation of her strangely loosened voice, or else the memory of the secret, gemlike place where things seemed at once more wondrous and more frightening than in real life. I walk to the door in silence. From the threshold I glance back at the room, and it is as always, warm and cozy and small, full of pillows and blankets and smiling ladies in oval frames, on both sides of the oval mirror. I am comforted to think that the sinister treasure is once again only a wooden box with pretty trinkets under the woolen stockings in the dresser, comforted to see my mother moving her tender, steady hands over the covers of the bed, smoothing them out in a gesture I have seen hundreds of times.

I prefer things this way, I tell myself. Really, I do.

“Go to sleep, my love,” says my mother, looking up briefly, not meeting my eyes. “Your father will be wanting his tea now.”

As I walk into the chill of the hallway, I think: But maybe I don’t.

 

FATHER’S STUDY:

THE IDEAL CITY

It is just after dinner on Thursday, time for our weekly Culture Hour. My father and I are seated at his desk, himself in his old armchair of cherry-colored leather, cracked along the middle, myself by his side, kneeling on a stool I lugged in from the kitchen.

On the radio, turned down low, a concerto is playing.

“Vivaldi, ‘La Folia,’” my father says after listening for a moment. “Appropriate in view of today’s subject.”

He reaches for the stack of books beside his typewriter and chooses a volume of Italian Renaissance paintings, which he opens to a marked page; like so many books in his study, it is bristling with the slivers of green, blue, and pink paper. My father makes the bookmarks himself by neatly cutting multicolored index cards into narrow strips, perfectly straight, though he never uses a ruler (he has an uncanny ability to draw straight lines), then jots down a heading or a quote along the strip in his meticulous, miniscule hand. The colors are not random, either; they follow some complicated scheme of his, though its principles always escape me. As he pulls the volume closer and carefully sets the blue bookmark down on his immaculate desk, next to the framed photograph of my mother, I tilt my head sideways until I can read the words written along it: “Ideal city.”

“This evening,” says my father, “we will talk about the Renaissance concept of the ‘ideal city.’ The concept itself did not originate in the Renaissance. The first man to study it in depth was the Greek philosopher Plato – you remember, we discussed him last month. Now Plato, in his ‘Republic’ –”

For the first minute or two I do nothing but luxuriate in the smell of the study. It is my favorite smell in the world, a noble smell that I like to imagine as deep, quiet, burgundy-hued, though in fact it is not one smell but a mixture of smells, all equally marvelous: the sharp, crispy smell of shiny art volumes, a bit like wet autumn leaves; the softer, more complex smell of thick treatises on history and philosophy whose desiccated leather spines crowd the shelves and between whose pages reside entire flocks of shy dust sprites that come out to play at dusk – I used to watch them for hours when I was younger; the metallic, oily, inky smell of my father’s mechanical typewriter, which, even when given a rare hour of rest, seems to radiate the heat of its passionate staccatos; the sweet ghostly smell of my father’s aromatic tobacco, which a friend brought from somewhere far away and which he smokes only on special occasions; I know he keeps the dwindling pouch in the middle drawer of his desk, just above the drawer with a fascinating wealth of compartmentalized pens, erasers, and paper clips, just below the drawer that is always locked . . .

My thoughts return from their wanderings, and I study the book opened before me. There is one large reproduction on the page to the left, and three smaller ones on the page to the right, with thin rivulets of text snaking between them. They are views of various cities – or perhaps it is all one city, for, while the painted vistas are different, all four are united by a certain sameness, a kind of stiff geometrical precision, beautiful and cold. The skies are flat, distant, and pale, devoid of clouds and winds; there are no curving streets, no cozy nooks, only vast, many-arched, many-columned expanses of architectural perfection in the full glare of brilliant noonday, with not a shadow, not a blade of grass, not a flower to be seen anywhere, the ground itself an intricate pattern of pastel-tinted marble diamonds and ovals in majestic perspective. The orderly chessboards of empty spaces, the magnificent heights of deserted staircases, the sleek facades all seem unsettling, even vaguely threatening, as if something roaring and monstrous is just poised to erupt into the sunlit silence from somewhere below the horizon.

I wait until my father finishes his explanation.

“So, if this city is so ideal,” I say, “then where are all the people?”

My father thoughtfully chews on his beard, then puts on his reading glasses, and makes a careful inspection of the paintings.

“There are some people here,” he points at last.

“No, those are statues. Or if they aren’t, they are the size of ants and have no faces, so they don’t count. There is a dot moving here, which looks like a girl my age wearing pajamas, but at this distance I can’t tell for sure – it may be just be a smudge.”

“Well,” my father says, “perhaps all the people are inside. They are sitting around drinking wine – moderate quantities of well-diluted wine, mind you – and discussing philosophy or creating masterpieces or whatnot. This is a perfect city, after all, so they are content wherever they are, indoors or outdoors, see?”

I look again; but the evenly spaced windows are dark and dead, and the doorways gape blindly. A while back I discovered a delightful secret – some paintings possess a deeper layer of life below their still surface: if I concentrate, then glance away quickly, I can often catch things moving out of the corner of my eye, women powdering their noses above the stiff lacy collars, cherubs tickling each other, cardinals relaxing their glum faces to yawn or sneeze.

I am certain that there is no hidden life lurking here.

“There aren’t any people,” I say stubbornly. “There aren’t even any cats or dogs. And look, there are no doors anywhere, just these open passageways. People wouldn’t live in houses that have no doors.”

“Ah, but that’s where you are wrong,” he says smiling. “If you listened to me with more attention, you would see that everyone in the ideal city is kind and honest, and there is no need for locks and chains.” He takes off his glasses, pulls out a folded square of suede always ready in his pocket, and begins to wipe the thick lenses, thoroughly, with deliberation, like everything he does, before putting the glasses back in their velveteen case. “But perhaps you are right and there are no people there after all,” he adds, no longer smiling. “Perhaps that is really the point. Ideals are all very fine until you start applying them to real life, you see. Just let people into your perfect city, just wait until they make themselves comfortable, and before you know it, well –”

Vivaldi has just stopped playing, and beyond the crackling of the radio void, I can suddenly hear the ticking of the clock on the desk. My father rubs the bridge of his nose in a gesture I know so well, then glances toward the window; I see an odd, stark look cross his face, a look of not quite anger, not quite grief. In the spare darkness of the early spring night, the enormous construction site just across the road is abbreviated to mere grayish hints of fences and sketchy gallows of cranes in the sky, but I know it is there all the same, as it has been throughout the ten years of my life. The rising edifice itself is only a shapeless bulk blotting out the stars. None of us has any idea what it will be when it is completed. “Temple of the People,” my father used to say when I was four or five and pestered him with endless queries.

My father pulls the curtains closed before turning back to me.

“Never mind,” he says briskly, “I’m not afraid to admit a mistake. Perhaps this was not the most fruitful subject for tonight’s discussion. Since you seem to miss people and dogs so much, how about some Fra Angelico? Here, let me show you.”

Once more he leafs through the Renaissance volume. This time the bookmark is pink, and so, I see, are the predominant colors of these new paintings, in which roses bloom, ladies blush, and saints are ruddy with health, all against a background of pink cliffs, red roofs, and churches aglow with sunrises. I am charmed. My father has already begun to speak when, against our custom, I plunge into his steady stream of dates and names with a breathless, out-of-turn question.

“Papa, are houses in Italy really so pink?”

“I suppose it is possible,” he says. “I’m glad you like these. But to continue, in 1436 Fra Angelico moved to Florence, to the new Friary of San Marco, and there –”

And there are tiny yellow flowers in the swaying meadows and tiny blue flowers on the hems of girls’ dresses, and tiny monsters bare their sharp little teeth in the soft swell of harbors, and bells ring, and birds chirp, and everyone, everyone has a golden halo. A few chubby monks have clumsily dropped a slab of stone onto a writhing blue imp and now stand around with guilty downcast eyes, debating how best to rescue him. A mother sits encumbered by a fat baby in her lap, and as her gaze follows the flights of some great white birds soaring toward the sun on rainbow-colored wings, her sad face brightens with the desire to leave the baby behind and fly away with them. These paintings are like fairy-tales, and while the stories do not all have happy endings – I notice a number of heads freshly detached from their bodies, floating in the pools of what looks like my mother’s strawberry preserves – they make me dizzy with the premonition that somewhere, somewhere out there, a place so vivid, so alive, really exists.

“Haven’t you been to Italy?” I interrupt again, too excited to listen.

My father coughs shortly.

“No,” he says.

I tear my eyes away from the book. “You haven’t been to Italy?”

“No.”

“But you’ve been to Greece.”

“No, not to Greece either,” he says.

“To France then? And England?”

“No.”

“But – to Egypt? China? India?”

Silent now, he shakes his head. I stare past him, at the lacquered spines of the art volumes lined in their neat alphabetical rows on the shelves, as I struggle to find the right words for the enormity of my disappointment.

“But . . . but you’ve told me about all these places. I thought . . . Haven’t you ever wanted to go there?”

“Well now, you see,” he begins, then clears his throat, and again says, “Well, you see,” and falls silent. The telephone rings in the hallway. We listen to the rush of my mother’s slippers slapping toward the sound, the lilt of her muffled voice. In the next moment the door of the study is cracked open.

My mother does not come in.

“Sorry to interrupt, it’s Orlov,” she says from the corridor. She is cupping her hand over the receiver, the cord stretched as far as it will go. “He wants to discuss tomorrow’s seminar, but I’ve told him you’re busy and will call him back in – what shall I say, half an hour?”

“No need, I’ll take it, we are finished,” my father answers, as he closes the book and rises from his armchair. “We must do better on our choice of subject next week. Perhaps Andrei Rublev?” He speaks the last words already past the threshold, picking up the telephone. “Yes, hello?”

Stunned, I look at the clock on his desk. There are still twenty minutes left of the Culture Hour. He has never done this before. All at once I am certain it’s because I interrupted him so much, and I feel chastened.

Reading Group Guide

1.) Who is the narrator of this story? Through whose eyes do you see the events unfold? Is it one of the last incarnations of Mrs. Caldwell, if so, which one? Is it her friend, Olga, or the author, Olga Grushin? Who else might be telling this story?

2.) From the anonymous child who becomes Mrs. Caldwell to the Olgas (both author and character), what importance can be found in the assigning of names? Is a name felt more in its presence or absence?

3.) What you do you make of the apparitions that visit the protagonist? Are they figments of her imagination or a part of the collective consciousness? Are they cruel or benevolent?

4.) Could the protagonist have become a great poet? And is creative success about talent, diligence, or something else?

5.) Are there any choices the protagonist made that may have acted as a tipping point, or did each lead inevitably to the next?

6.) If you were to write your own life story in forty rooms, where would you begin? Are there key moments you would pick out for yourself? And where did they unfold?

7.) In their last conversation Apollo tells Mrs. Caldwell, “You must earn your right to say the things that truly matter – and for that, you pay in years, you pay in sweat, you pay in tears, you pay in blood. Both yours and other people’s.” Did the universe give Mrs. Caldwell opportunities, and did she squander them by seeking not to suffer? Were her prayers, especially for loved ones, selfless? Would it have been selfish to embrace their misfortune for her inspiration? And if so, is art an act of selfish appropriation or selflessness?

8.) How is accomplishment defined in FORTY ROOMS and do you agree with these parameters?

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