"My Russian"

A serious novel that's almost a thriller tells of a woman who assumes a disguise and hunkers down 11 blocks from home.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Deirdre McNamer's novel "My Russian" is almost a thriller, but not quite. Within the first few pages we meet the narrator, Francesca Woodbridge, a married, middle-aged, middle-class-comfortable woman increasingly alienated from her husband (a successful lawyer who's gone astray from his youthful ideals, and who has recently been shot by an intruder in the couple's home) and her teenage son (whose resentment toward his parents hangs in the air like not-so-secret cigarette smoke).

But from the beginning of the book, Francesca Woodbridge isn't really Francesca Woodbridge. She's remade herself, with a wig, some dowdy clothing and a fake passport, into a woman named Jeanne Thompson, and she's hunkered down in a motel 11 blocks from her own home, while her husband, son and friends believe she's on holiday in Greece. From that vantage point, she embarks on a mission to right some false accusations regarding her husband's shooting. More important, she's trying to sort out for herself the meaning of a befuddling and deeply passionate love affair that she's kept a secret from everyone.

"My Russian" has its suspenseful moments. But what's artful about it -- and what's ultimately so touching -- is the way McNamer uses the conventions of the thriller to tell what is really a very interior, private story. Books about men's midlife crises are a dime a dozen. Women's stories are much more rare, and they're usually more boring: Sometimes there are affairs (though it's often the woman who suffers as her husband philanders), and there are almost always unappreciative, drifting children. But these books often end up only translating the vague feelings of uselessness and unattractiveness that many middle-aged women (like so many men) seem to face into a kind of kitchen-curtain ennui. Their tone has more in common with the repetitiveness of wallpaper patterns than with the messiness of everyday life.

McNamer's book, on the other hand, has blood coursing through its veins. Her prose is so sophisticated and so carefully wrought that it sometimes comes off a bit cool. But when Francesca explains how she came to fall in love with "her Russian" -- a recent immigrant whom she'd hired to redesign her garden -- she's so refreshingly unapologetic that she radiates a burning-tiger warmth. She speaks of the uncertainty of her new love with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl, as if she's suddenly realizing that, even at middle age, new lovers always connect in ways that are as old as time itself:

Some kind of conversation seems to begin beneath whatever is being literally said. Our speaking voices go into voiceover and another conversation begins. It is the murmuring of calm, telepathic aliens ... Though like everything about this state, embarrassment and chagrin are a hair away. You think it's a conversation, but it might only be your own underwater voice coming back to you. Quite possibly you're a fool. Quite possibly you're getting nothing back but your own signals, your own bat sonar. The bat-beeps assess the dimensions of the black cave and come back sounding like another's voice. You could mistake your own echo for a response. That's the fear.

"My Russian" is largely about fear, and about the uncertainty (and the necessity) of facing up to one's own conditions for happiness. But a book about fear doesn't have to be fearful or timid, and McNamer's novel, though it's remarkably tender, is anything but. "I carry my conditions with me, and one of them is that passion for the unrequited. A desire for desire," Francesca concludes. It's a good blueprint for a life, but it's also a kind of curse -- a Medusa gaze in reverse that, instead of turning you into stone, can make you feel radiantly open to life and all its incumbent misery. McNamer, blessedly, never lets her character, or her readers, look away.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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