Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

Lady of the Snakes

Review by Colleen Mondor

Lady of the Snakes.
Rachel Pastan.
Harcourt. 2008. 308 pp.
ISBN 0-15-1013692.

Jane Levitsky is an academic who has a fascinating subject in the wife of a 19th century Russian novelist. Her painstaking research into the life of Masha Karkova, who kept detailed diaries, has led her to believe that she has the potential for an interesting book that will likely be well received in her field. Jane feels that Masha's contribution to her husband's career has been sorely overlooked by the often male biographers and researchers who have studied him in the past. As a 21st century woman, Jane feels compelled to free Masha from her husband's shadow and explore just what life was like for her during a complicated and often heartbreaking marriage.

Rachel Pastan's novel, Lady of the Snakes would make an interesting exploration of academia, especially after Jane uncovers information that suggests Masha was more than just a muse, but the author has elected to combine a literary mystery with a modern story about the choices a woman makes between work and family. The fact that Masha likely faced similar deliberations is not lost on Jane (or the author) yet it makes Jane's struggles no less poignant. Her research is utterly and completely fascinating and she has a burning need to pursue it. But she also has a very demanding job as an assistant professor at a university where Russian literature holds some level of prestige. Jane faces pressure from all corners to do well and she wants to do well—at everything. The more she responds to the demands of one aspect of her life, the more another suffers. This will come as no surprise to any working mother who reads the book, but Jane's conflict is especially poignant as she feels a responsibility to the long dead Masha. Jane's failure will be no small thing, for anyone, and so she soldiers on as her personal life slowly crashes around her and everything she cares about so much falls disastrously apart.

There is the potential for clichés in Lady of the Snakes; we are dealing after all with a woman torn between family and career and a marriage that crumbles under the strain. But Jane's fascination with her subject will be very familiar territory for anyone in academia and her discovery, while not of the outlandish Dan Brown variety, would be irresistible for anyone involved in long-term research. Jane could literally be rewriting the history of a well known novelist and simultaneously be exploring a segment of women's history studies. She has to travel to discover if the book she envisions is really possible, but how can she leave her family, who are facing serious childcare issues, alone? Pastan makes the choices Jane is facing stark and realistic and her longing to pursue Masha's life is palpable. She does not shirk her duty at home (her daughter is not abandoned) but as she pushes herself to accomplish every single thing on her plate, none of them are completed to anyone's satisfaction. And her resentment at having to choose builds, which drives a wedge between husband and wife, something he is just as guilty for as she is.

When the explosion occurs, Jane is at a critical juncture in her Masha research and discovering that, while she yearns to reveal the truth, there are those who would prefer literary history remain unchanged. This is a stark lesson on the dark side of academia where fresh research is not always welcomed, especially when it contradicts long-held beliefs. Jane faces a difficult dilemma at work and an even more troubling one at home. She has to decide what she wants to do in every aspect of her life. On the one hand this seems incredibly daunting but the reality is that we face this sort of decision making every single day. Most of the time we just put off the hard stuff until tomorrow; Jane finally reaches a point where she has to deal with the present and figure out just what kind of life she wants to live.

I found Lady of the Snakes to be incredibly readable and Jane a most compelling protagonist. I'm a sucker for literary mysteries (of the believable kind) and Masha's story was quite intriguing as well. I liked how Pastan developed her historical character through diaries and letters and that Masha's conflict was so unexpected. Pastan was able to mirror the two women, Masha and Jane, quite effectively even though the facts of their lives were quite different. Ultimately the author shows how women have always faced uniquely hard choices in pursuit of balanced lives. There are no easy answers for any of the characters in Pastan's world, but seeing how these women chose to live makes for a splendid good read. How much did I like Lady of the Snakes? I'm sending my copy to my mother—because she enjoys a good, richly told story better than just about anyone I know. She'll love it.


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