The stories found in the collection On the Golden Porch feature lonely, discontented people fantasizing about love or waiting for magic to touch their lives. Set in the Soviet Union before the fall of communism, these are tales about ordinary people trying to make real life fit with their dreams. Not primarily political, the stories are concerned with how men and women manage their lives by mixing love, memory, and desire with equal doses of fantasy, magic, and delusion. Through passionate imaginings, the characters seek to displace a vast spiritual emptiness that they sense but cannot always articulate. This shared ennui is as much a product of living in the twentieth century as it may be a result of specific political doctrines, ideology, and institutions.

Despite the fact that Tolstaya is a nonpolitical writer, one cannot help seeing in On the Golden Porch a reflection of what daily life in Soviet Russia was like for women and men, from standing in lines for two hours to buy a cake to sharing communal flats to dealing with shortages and speculators within the crowded city life of Moscow and Leningrad. Although the material is never presented in an overtly political manner, it is a continual subtext throughout the stories that cannot be ignored.

Loneliness is a central focus in the lives of Tolstaya’s characters, as both the women and the men search for happiness by pinning their hopes on dreams, expectations, and even other people, or by relying on memories. Usually, they are disillusioned. The stories are rendered realistic by the irony of their circumstances, so that the reader agrees that life is indeed “that way.” These characters, however eccentric and desirous of magic, are real enough. Readers recognize the sentiments of the man in “A Clean Sheet,” who seeks an operation to remove surgically the source of his depression, even if they respond to the story as a kind of fable.


(The entire section is 794 words.)