My Russian

Russia—an abstract but very real presence for American children in the 1950’s and 1960’s—runs through the five decades that spans My Russian. There is the teacher fired for telling his fifth-grade class that the Iron Curtain is an imaginary sheet dividing half of the world's idiots from the other half, giving them both a reason to hate each other. There is the Leftist professor whose files are raided by a student-cum-government informer, after which the student, then the professor, abruptly vanish. Most significantly, there is protagonist Francesca's gardener, eleven years old in Chernobyl when the nuclear plant exploded, who transforms her yard, and her life, then one day inexplicably disappears.

Francesca Woodbridge, in disguise, is living in a motel just blocks from her comfortable home. Her husband and teenage son think she is still with a tour group in Greece. This may sound like a typical middle- age/marriage-in-crisis story; Francesca herself admits it is an old, old tale. But she offers her version, she says, because of “certain embellishments and blind corners” that she continues to find “curious, even amazing,” long after the decisions have been made.

Through the mysterious shooting of Francesca's husband and her need to set the record straight, Francesca investigates the way things reconfigure, “the way your eyes suddenly begin to see the sharp- chinned hag instead of the lovely young lady with the plume, the profiles instead of the vase.” In the last chapter, from the perspective of several years Francesca thinks back on the week she spent disguised in the motel. She says it was the strangest thing she ever did, or would do, and it was the pivot that awakened her to the jagged beauty of her own life.

In the end, Francesca affirms the options, and her inevitable choice. Moving backward and forward in this novel, Deirdre McNamer deftly weaves many threads with insight and energy that continue through to the final page and, probably for many readers, far beyond.