Review: 'A Terrible Country' is a wonderful novel

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"A Terrible Country: a Novel" (Viking), by Keith Gessen

With the United States in an uproar about Russian meddling in its election, it's a good time to brush up on the country's former Cold War enemy. Here to help is Russian-born emigre Keith Gessen, whose hilarious, heartbreaking second novel, "A Terrible Country," may be one of the best books you'll read this year.

The novel is narrated by 33-year-old Andrei, who, like the author, is a Soviet Jew who came to the United States at age 6, and it recounts the year he spent in Moscow taking care of his aging grandmother.

He moved back on the eve of the 2008 financial meltdown at the behest of his businessman brother, Dima, who had to flee the country suddenly after getting on the wrong side of the oligarchs. While Andrei is initially put out by Dima's request, he isn't unhappy to leave New York. His girlfriend has just dumped him, and he's hoping the change of scenery might jump-start his stalled academic career.

But unbeknownst to Andrei, Baba Seva has dementia and is hard of hearing. And since Dima has already sublet his apartment across the hall, Andrei has to move into their old bedroom. Oh, the humiliation!

One of the pleasures of the novel is listening to Andrei's hyper-intelligent, wry and ironic voice. At times he can be petty and arrogant, self-righteous and ingratiating, not to mention slightly clueless about women. Here he is, noticing all the gorgeous blond women in black pencil skirts on Moscow's streets. "I don't know why I liked the fact that they all looked alike, but I did."

But basically Andrei is a good guy who feels guilty when he gets impatient with his grandmother and offers up incisive, politically charged commentary on the sweeping changes under way in Putin's Russia.

The other unforgettable character is Andrei's grandmother, an indomitable force of nature. Gessen's portrait of her is tender, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced and poignant depiction of what it means to lose your memory.

Indeed, Baba Seva is the one who lends the novel its title. Early on, she can't remember who Andrei is or why he's in Moscow. When he reminds her, she gets upset. "This is a terrible country," she says to him. "My (daughter) took you to America. Why did you come back?"

Gessen's genius is in showing us how and why Russia is and isn't a terrible country. And how, in its ruthless devotion to market capitalism, the former socialist state bears a striking resemblance to our own.



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