In A FOREIGN WOMAN, Sergei Dovlatov satirizes the “third wave” of Russian emigrants who came to this country in the 1980’s. Though they were predominantly Jewish, Dovlatov (who died of a heart attack shortly before the novel was published) centers his novel on the non-Jew Marusya Tatarovich, who in a fit of pique leaves behind a privileged life denied to most of her Jewish compatriots. In America, the beautiful, headstrong Marusya struggles to support herself and small son. Regretting her decision to emigrate, she learns she must “earn” the Soviet government’s forgiveness to go home. The real block to her return, however, is Rafael, an affable, free-spending “Spaniard” of mysterious and questionable means.
Though the course of no love runs smoothly, and this one has more than its share of bumps and potholes, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome. The fun comes when Dovlatov, himself a character in the novel, uses the plot to examine the emigre society in Queens, New York, with its colorful and likable cast of publishers, writers, cab drivers, drunks, and Baptists.
Of course, this insular “Russian colony,” isolated from and ambivalent about American society, follows Marusya’s activities closely, giving Dovlatov ample chance to poke fun at both Russian and American values. In a new country where the emigres no longer have any political goal, politics rarely rises above the level of gossip and back-stabbing, and love, sex, and success become the new focus of everyone’s dreams.
Though rarely provoking outright laughter, Dovlatov is a close observer of life and has a knack for terse and pithy formulations ("In effect, ‘Jew’ is surname, profession, and image all in one."). Moreover, he demonstrates the satirist’s ability of going the worst one better with winning nonchalance and stating the obvious from both sides: “Of course, innocent people were being shot. Yet the execution of one was good for many others.”
Though providing a delightfully caustic look at human vanities, the novel also uncovers the underlying goodness in human nature.