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Book Reviews: Russian Lover and Other Stories

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:29 pm

Yeti/Verse Chorus Press, 2007, $15.95

A well-done short story feels miraculous, the selection of just the right moments and details to create an entire reality in a bite-sized handful of pages. Woodstock author Jana Martin gets it right. The reader knows everything he or she needs to know; the characters breathe and sweat and could go on with their lives for a novel’s worth of time and we’d not be bored. Yet the moments she brings into focus do, in themselves, form a seamless, satisfying whole.

Martin catches her heroines—who are, to a woman, appealing, imperfect, and forthright—at watershed moments of transition. She has a refined sense of how strange this world can get. In her hands, experiences that might seem familiar (such as a long-distance bus trip) can be filled with revelatory nuance.

The title story, “Russian Lover,” is a series of attempts on the part of a young divorcee to apologize, by letter, for an episode in which she flew into a frenzy at her inlaws’ Christmas dinner, sending food and crockery flying. Seen through the lens of her memory, the episode is horrifying and hilarious, inevitable and regrettable. The narrator’s after-the-fact understanding of the forces in the air around that stultifying bourgeois dinner table could save her mother-in-law thousands in therapists’ bills—if the woman could but comprehend, if the letter were ever actually completed and sent. But, one way or another, the protagonist will be fine. She’s a survivor.

So is Rita, the sweet-natured lass who’s recovering, with the help of her lover, from a traumatic brain injury. Martin’s got a gift for creating microportraits of people you’ve glimpsed on the street or met at a party: “He was pale, slender, not tall, not short, with coat-hanger shoulders and a serious but boyish milky face. She was retro fleshpot, cinched into vintage, black lacquered hair, black nails, dark voice. They lived in a shitty loft, drove an old car, maybe someday they’d get married, maybe they’d stay underground forever.” The lovers are intellectual indie musicians, and the way they handle the accident and its aftermath—including Rita’s improbable obsession with John Denver—makes for a fresh love story with a satisfying happy ending.

Extremely brief depictions—a country girl packing to move, a war-veteran father at a barbecue—are sprinkled among the longer pieces, exotic seasonings in a salad. Martin’s rich imagery brings to vivid life the exotic side of the mundane, and reveals the mundane within the exotic worlds of a dominatrix or a topless dancer. (“I thought I’d wear the [thigh-high] boots out until I tripped on the shiny tile by the hiking boot display, nearly went over, thought better of it.”)

Places, like people, are evoked with a couple of well-chosen phrases. Martin knows Florida and Boston and New Jersey as intimately as she knows the interior lives of women in crisis. You can smell and taste and see them.
Russian Lover is the first book released by Verse Chorus’s new Yeti imprint (followed by a collection of essays by Luc Sante, to be reviewed in October). The author’s bio mentions that Martin and her dog are learning search and rescue. Somehow, it seems an ideal avocation for one who understands so thoroughly the ways in which people map paths out of the emotional wilderness of our modern world.

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