Warning: Ramblings and many quotes to follow.
“Do you not imagine sometimes,
When dusk wanders through the house,
That here, alongside us, lies another plane,
Where we lead entirely different lives?” ~Innokenty Annensky
Opening with a poem, mentioned in Forty Rooms, feels fitting when the protagonist herself dreams and thinks in poetry. The reader won’t know her name until much later but as a child she is filled with imagination and wonder. As a teen she feel the push and pull of adolescence. Finally, as an adult she decides to leave her simple home in Russia and venture to America for an education and to experience what she feels she is missing, what is in her heart, what is destined to be her future:
“What I do not want, I think with sudden ferocity, is a small life-a life of mundane concerns, of fulfilled expectations, of commonplaces and banalities, of children’s sore throats, or grandmother’s apple pies, of fussy nineteenth-century porcelain-a life within four walls.”
So what is Forty Rooms really about and who would like this book? Forty Rooms felt like a combination of short stories, poetry and self-reflection. There are unnamed secondary characters, dream sequences and mythology thrown in for good measure. There are no twists and big reveals except for the reveals of life-what one imagines life to be and what it’s become while looking back. This character-driven novel is very introspective and leisurely paced. It took me about two weeks to read it due to distractions of BEA, end of the school year, end of a job, etc., but truly because of the thought-provoking literary prose. Poetry is not my strong suit but this book made me want to venture into that “scary” territory and read more. It also reminded me of When Women Were Birds, which I absolutely loved. Here is the protagonist’s (we later find out is named Mrs. Caldwell) mother describing what “forty” means:
“‘It’s always forty,’ her mother replied, snipping, smiling. ‘Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit. It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true. Oh, you know what I mean-Noah’s forty days and nights of rain, Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation. Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too. In the Bible, forty years make a span of one generation. Forty weeks makes a baby.'”
And so Olga Grushin narrates Mrs. Caldwell’s experiences and existence from forty rooms of her life. I feel that some readers will absolutely love this book and others will not bother, giving up after a several chapters. It would make for a great book club discussion for that reason alone and there is so much to dissect and discuss about reality, imagination, mythology, poetry, psychology, women’s lives, relationships, goals, dreams, missed opportunities, the paths not taken and the ones settled on. What is a life? How is it defined? Can a small, seemingly mundane life be enough, leave an impact? Yep, much to debate.
While reading this book, I realized that these types are my favorite reads. The ones that are deeply embedded with inner thoughts and profound life realizations. The combination of gorgeous literary prose, stylistically original format and just enough wonder to keep me guessing. I wanted to ingest the words and reread passages over and over hoping they would change the chemicals in my brain. Yes, I’m rambling again. But maybe it also came at a time in my life when I’m also going through changes and unfamiliar paths to decide upon. Here is one of my favorite chapters with only one sentence and pretty much sums up how this book made me feel:
“Happiness this deep is wordless.”
Forty Rooms is 352 pages and was written by Olga Grushin. It released on February 16, 2016 by Marian Wood Books/Putnam. I picked up a copy at my local library and will have to transfer all the flags I used into a copy I just purchased.