Olga Grushin – Forty Rooms
In Olga Grushin’s new novel, Forty Rooms (Marian Wood Books/Putnam), we follow a protagonist throughout her life during moments of import in, like the title suggests, forty different rooms. Some of these are in houses or apartments she inhabits, while others run the gamut from small-town library to suburban wine cellar. Whatever the case, Grushin describes these spaces and moments brilliantly, all while telling a dynamic and complex story.
I happened to read Forty Rooms in many rooms myself: in a basement in Toronto, surrounded by coffee shops and brightly colored townhouses, in the bright sunroom of a large house in Beit Elazari, Israel, babysitting my ninety-two-year-old grandfather-in-law, who’d survived two brutal wars but now couldn’t survive five minutes without trying to escape his house in an undying longing to go home (“You are home,” we would tell him day after day; “Look at your books, your trees, the photos of your grandchildren.”). I also read it in a cold, drafty restaurant in Tel Aviv, in the aisle seat of an Air Canada airplane, flying over the Atlantic, and a green-walled café in Chicago, surrounded by photos of bunnies. The fact that I can remember all these places so well further illustrates the power a room can have.
ZHANNA SLOR: I love the entire idea of writing a book in forty different rooms. Because I’ve moved around so much, rooms and houses are things I often consider and immediately notice, first aesthetically, but next because they can say so much: an empty bookshelf, a mattress on the floor, a counter covered in plants, wine glasses in the sink. Every detail about a room is a detail of someone’s life, of the world around them. But Forty Rooms isn’t just about places—it tells a very distinct, powerful story, one that many people, especially writers, can connect to. The first thing I wondered when I finished reading it was this: Is the story about this woman, in a way, playing out a writer’s worst nightmare? Was this ever the way you worried your life might end up?
OLGA GRUSHIN: Well, Forty Rooms can certainly be read as a horror story of sorts, but the life of my main character is fulfilling in many ways. It’s just not the life she herself wanted to live as a child. I was interested in exploring this gulf between the ideal and the real, the extraordinary and the commonplace, the fantastical and the expected – between life as we dream of it in our youth and life as it is ultimately lived in our adulthood. And I do think about these issues myself, all the time. As a writer and a mother, I am forever juggling my work and my children, and there have certainly been periods – occasionally very long periods – when I had to devote a lot more time to family and housekeeping than to art, which had its rewards but was frightening too. I find it quite unnerving that, for me at least, it’s possible to be one or the other – an artist or a mother – but nearly impossible to be both at the same time. It was really this disconcerting sense of dislocation between the two halves of my life that served as the initial impulse behind Forty Rooms.
ZS: That’s so interesting! I can definitely see that conflict in there—I’m not a parent, but I often felt similarly at jobs I’ve had that have nothing to do with writing, like I’m a whole other person there, or the way I am with my husband versus the way I am with my relatives. I think a lot of people could probably relate to this in some way, especially writers or artists. Does the fact that we never learn the woman’s first name imply that it could happen to anyone?
OG: The question of identity is central to the story, of course, and it’s not by accident that my main character is the only person in the book without a first name. Once she marries, she becomes known by her husband’s name, as Mrs. Caldwell. Nor is she the first Mrs. Caldwell of the narrative; her husband’s mother is “the original” Mrs. Caldwell, so the name itself seems interchangeable and transferable. But as for my specific reasons, every reader is entitled to his or her own interpretation.
ZS: We never learn where she lives either—is that for the same reason?
OG: For some books, a sense of place, a particular atmosphere, a certain setting, are absolutely essential; for example, in my first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, the city of Moscow is almost another character. But this story is quite different. True, the main character is a Russian who comes to America, but this is far removed from an immigration narrative that explores cultural differences – rather, this is an exploration of internal, private spaces only. Among other reasons, I was careful to avoid any concrete geographic markers because I wanted the readers’ idea of Mrs. Caldwell’s outside world to be vague and misty, much as her own idea of it is throughout the book.
ZS: I think the geographical marker that stood out with me the most was that building next door to her parents’ apartment in Moscow that was under construction for the entirety of her life. We had a similar building down the block from us in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, where I’m from, and as far as we know it’s still not completed, two decades later. Does this building mean something more to you than just a reflection of Soviet work ethic? I sort of saw it also as a metaphor for the ever-changing construction of the protagonist’s identity.
OG: You know, this detail was actually inspired by a never-ending construction site across the street from the Moscow apartment where I myself grew up. But you could certainly read a symbolic meaning into the image as well. The unfinished edifice is a mystery present throughout my protagonist’s childhood, but in the last third of the novel, when she is in her forties and living a comfortable suburban life in America, her visiting mother tells her that the construction has been finished at last and is now, disappointingly, a Mercedes dealership. And then her mother adds, “But I sometimes wonder: What was it supposed to be, I mean in the beginning? Something else, don’t you think?”
ZS: I have often wondered what the building near our apartment was supposed to be as well. I imagine it was likely meant to be another apartment building. Speaking of the motherland, what was your intention in naming a character after yourself?
OG: Well, for one thing, Olga is an extremely common Russian name – just as an example, my two closest friends are both named Olga – but, of course, there is more to it. Mrs. Caldwell, who marries, has six children, and turns her back on art, and Olga, who never marries, has no children, becomes a writer, and exploits the life of Mrs. Caldwell in her work, reflect off each other in some curious ways. And I had a lot of fun with Olga, who, by the way, may be nothing but a figment of Mrs. Caldwell’s imagination – unless, of course, it is the other way around.
ZS: The girl at the beginning is so vastly different from the woman at the end. Did you know right away how her life would end up, or did the story come to you as you wrote it?
OG: I absolutely knew how it would end up from the beginning; in fact, it was this very idea of the main character’s complete transformation that was the novel’s genesis. At its heart, this is a story of choices and changes. It’s told in forty chronological episodes, each set in a different room of this woman’s life, and every episode – every room – contains a choice of some kind. Many of the choices are clearly life-changing – whether to go abroad or remain at home, whether to get married, whether to have a child. Others seem small at the time – whether to visit a neighbor, whether to speak or stay silent – and their implications become apparent only years later. I wanted to examine the way all such choices, big and small, add up in our lives and the profound changes they bring.
ZS: Wow, I didn’t connect that until you just said it. That’s very cool. It does sort of seem like she, too, is unaware of making these choices as she is making them. In general it never seems to feel like she has that much control over her life; she lets other people make all of her major life decisions, and all along, she’s never satisfied with them. Sometimes, especially in the moment where she moves to the suburbs, I just want to shake her and say, “If you don’t want to do it, then don’t!” What do you think makes her so passive?
OG: Mrs. Caldwell doesn’t actually see herself as passive. The question of following the right path concerns her throughout the book, and she is supremely aware of making choices. But she never makes a conscious decision in the matter most central to her life. She keeps delaying, occupying herself with smaller dilemmas, making allowances for circumstances she believes to be temporary, until one day the decision seems to be taken out of her hands. We can all relate to that, I think: some of the most important decisions of our lives are not truly made but just seem to happen to us, as if by default.
ZS: Does the reason it changes to second person around chapter 12, then again to Mrs. Caldwell later in the book, have to do with her becoming so detached from her inner world?
OG: Indeed, in the course of the book, the protagonist is transformed from the immediate “I” to the slightly remote “she” to the more formal “Mrs. Caldwell.” I play with tenses too: the book is divided into five parts – “Mythology,” “Past Perfect,” “The Past,” “The Present,” and “The Future” – and you will notice that the Past section is actually told in present tense, while the Present section is told in past tense. I love setting myself technical challenges of this sort, and, of course, there are reasons behind such literary devices. But I didn’t set out to write an unambiguous tale of lost hopes and dashed dreams, and I hope that it will lend itself to many possible interpretations.
ZS: The thing I couldn’t understand the most was why she so easily gave up her poetry; it would have taken her no more than a few hours to mail out some poems to magazines and get published. It’s like she never wanted to succeed. Sometimes it felt as if all along she wanted an ordinary life—she certainly did little to change it—and that she just felt so guilty for wanting it that she became dissatisfied with everything. Or was it just that she was scared? This entreaty from the book comes to mind: “Please spare me any real pain, any real joy, any real shame, any real life—yes, please make me life as smooth, as shallow, as easy as it can get, because all I want is to tiptoe on the surface of things composing little ditties as I do laundry…” Do you think there is any reality where she might have been the writer she wanted to be, or was it always just a fantasy?
OG: In real life, a young woman of literary aspirations might well spend a couple of hours here and there mailing out poems, and, even with a handful of published credits to her name, she might still end up in more or less the same place as my protagonist. That said, I was not interested in half measures or nods to realism; I was hoping to tell an “either-or” fable about choices. It is meant as a kind of mystery, too, which your question pinpoints exactly. Is this a story of a woman finding her happy place in life as a family matriarch – or a cautionary tale about someone who wasted her talent? Was the man who appeared in her visions a youthful fantasy, or was she truly visited by divine inspiration? Was she something special, or did she feel profound relief when she surrendered her ambitions? And if my readers’ answers to these questions tell them something about their own choices in life, it will make me very happy as a writer.
ZS: Well, it definitely gives the reader much to think about. I’ve always thought some of the best literature supplies more questions than answers—and this one definitely had me asking questions. Thank you so much for answering them!
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Olga Grushin was born in Moscow. Her father was an eminent, world-respected sociologist and hers was (relatively speaking) a comfortable childhood. Awarded a full scholarship to Emory University, she graduated with honors and, in 2002 became a U.S. citizen. All her writing—stories, novels, nonfiction articles—has been in flawless English. The Dream Life of Sukhanov earned her a place on Granta‘s list of Best Young American Novelists and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Award. Both it and her second novel, The Line, made many best of the year lists. She lives with her two children in Maryland. (Author photo by Karel Cudlin.)
Zhanna Slor is a Ukrainian-born writer and painter living in Chicago. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review, Tusculum Review, StorySouth, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a piece that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.