Review: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya


There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Penguin. 171 pp.

I’m pretty sure this book wins the Longest Title I’ve Ever Seen Award. I mean, look at that cover. It was designed by a clever artist, that’s for sure, because it couldn’t have been an easy feat fitting all that text in such a small space.

Even though I know now how prolific Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is (by the way, get this: my spell check thinks her first name is misspelled, but not her last), I had no idea who she was when I first encountered her. One of her stories — I can’t recall the title, but it wasn’t in this collection — was featured in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an excellent collection of retold fairy tales edited by Kate Bernheimer. When I saw this collection on NetGalley, I thought I’d give it a shot even though I couldn’t recall whether I’d particularly liked Petrushevskaya’s story.

There Once Lived a Girl… is a collection of plaintive stories about all kinds of people. In her insightful introduction, Anna Summers writes,

In place of the heroic new men and new women, Petrushevskaya offered a cast of pathetic characters barely holding themselves together.

Summers is right: many of these stories do have undertones of survival. From the woman grateful for a one-night affair in “A Murky Fate” to the messiness of “Ali-Baba” and the anger of being locked out by a former lover in “The Impulse,” there’s also a lot of exploration of sexual dynamics and the impermanence of relationships. Other stories focus on the struggle to make ends meet, untraditional family structures (the titular child whose mother is also her aunt, for instance), and the never-ending quest to better oneself. My favorite story was “The Goddess Parka,” which was dreamlike and sudden and beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the hazy feel of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.

The style is difficult to discuss because this is a translated work; it’s hard to say how much of what I read was Petrushevskaya and how much was Summers’s interpretation of her words. This is a difficulty I’ve often had with Russian literature: it has a sort of dry, detached tone that is all its own. I’m not sure, however, whether this is due to the translators I’ve encountered or whether it’s a characteristic of the particular Russian works I’ve picked up. I don’t dislike it; I’m just not entirely sure where it’s coming from. And since I can practically guarantee that I’ll never be fluent in Russian, I may never know.

All in all: I found this interesting. Even though it’s not a new favorite, I’m glad I checked it out. It’s good to expand your literary horizons every once in a while, right? (Plus, it’s short, so there’s not a high level of time commitment.)