Published by Marian Wood Books/Putnam
Publication date: February 16th 2016
It is no small feat to write a novel about one woman’s life that taps into the universality of all women’s lives but Olga Grushin accomplishes just that in her new novel, Forty Rooms. With a construct based on the belief that—
Forty is God’s way of testing the human spirit. It’s the limits of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true
each chapter is a room at a point in the narrator’s life. The earliest rooms are from her perspective as a little girl and so are filled with the charm of a child’s mind—not knowing who exactly is bathing her only that the hands and tones of voice are different, later believing her mother is a mermaid as she watches her dress…so much mystery in what we, as adults, see as mundane. Later she leaves Russia to attend college in the United States and her early dreams of being a poet crystallize into a fervent belief that this is what she is meant to do.
Anything. Everything. I’ve never even been anywhere. I want to throw myself into adventures. Plunge into the twentieth century before it runs out, so I can write about it in the fullness of experience. Because no one can discover anything new while staying within the four walls of a bookworm’s cell, never venturing out to taste joy or pain.
She leaves her library cubicle but not to be a poet. Instead, the rooms lead to a large home, four children, and two dogs by the time she is thirty-three. Along the way Forty Rooms shifts from being told by the narrator herself as ‘I’ to the story of ‘she’. It’s only in marriage that she gains a name for the first time and is Mrs. Caldwell for the rest of the novel. She’s defined by everything around her, but no longer by anything within her.
On the surface, Forty Rooms is the chronology of a life but beneath that is a contemplative study, much like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the many conversations in the novel Grushin puts the spoken on the page, but what draws the reader in is the unspoken and the uncertainty as to what was said and what was only thought. In this way, the novel steals in quietly and without manipulation. There is no great drama or tragedy, only the motion of days lived and the dreams that are traded in ways, large and small, willingly and unwillingly, for the realities of life. Whether these compromises were necessary comes to light later when her husband says about their marriage
…I keep having this feeling that it could have been more if only you’d trusted your dumb prince with your frog skin or your swan wings or—whatever it was you turned into when you were alone. Because our life often felt—I don’t know—less than real somehow. Like you weren’t all here.
The novel encapsulates the fallibility of memory and of how we try and reconcile it to reality. There are people who float through the narrator’s life but it is difficult to know if they are real or simply her own conversations with herself. A mystery man visits her as a child and seems to encourage her poetry, but returns later to mock her feelings about her life
“Oh, and finding happiness in the small things, my dear, that’s really nothing to brag about—it’s the last consolation of those whose imagination has failed them”
Even this harshness, whether real or self-induced, is just one of many phases and while it may be a sentence, a complete room or many rooms, there is something for every woman in Forty Rooms; something she can see of her own life in the telling—a scene, an hour, years. This is a book of woman and is one of those rare instances where what an author has written says more about the reader than it does the writer. In Grushin’s words there is recognition and each one, perfectly placed to the next, twines into the heart. Forty Rooms is a deep breath of sadness exhaled as a sigh of acceptance.
In her first decade of life, she had understood, albeit dimly and without reasoning, that certain kind of inner fire was required if you were ever to see the things no one else saw. In her second decade, she had learned that work and daring were necessary also, and in her third, she had added experience—of pain and joy both—to the list. But was she discovering, on the cusp of her fourth decade, that selfishness too was an essential part of this celestial equation? In the end, when all accounts were totaled, did you become great only by disregarding the happiness of those around you—was the mark of a true genius his perfect solitude, his absolute inability to consider anything beyond his art?