You don’t have to be a fan of Russian literature (which I am) to enjoy A Russian Sister by Caroline Adderson. It’s a novel of historical fiction written with Anton Chekov’s sister as the main character. Actually, there are three main characters: Masha aka Maria Chekov, and her friend Lika Mizinova, with Anton Chekov providing plot complications. Adderson thought a look at the famous Russian author’s life in relation to his sister would provide an interesting and different perspective, and it does. Both of their lives are a psychologist’s wet dream which means the book is fascinating.
Masha Chekov is the only girl (another sister died at the age of two) born into the Chekov family of five brothers. They were raised by a difficult mother and brutal father who regularly beat his sons when they were young boys. The two older sons had left home by the time this story starts but both have deep psychological problems including alcoholism. The fifth brother who died in his thirties was also a reprobate and lived a tragic life. Anton is the most handsome of the five sons and a known womanizer but refuses to commit to marriage as he feels he’s incapable of lasting love and fidelity. Despite the earlier abuse, Anton Chekov managed to become a medical doctor but his emotional scars run deep. He remained living with his parents and sister Masha for most of his adult life.
When the story starts, Masha is a school teacher and artist in her mid-twenties who also acts as secretary and personal assistant to her brother Anton. He makes little to no money as a doctor because he’s a champion of the poor and generally provides medical services at no cost. As a young man, he began writing humourous short stories that were so popular they propel him into the spotlight of Russian literature. Over time, his writing becomes more serious in support of his social causes but it’s the money from his writing, not his medical practice that supports the family.
One day Masha brings home a young woman she teaches school with whom she thinks Anton might find attractive and consider as a potential mate. Lika Mizinova is beautiful, musical, and intelligent with an outgoing personality. Naturally, the two hit it off but it launches years of an on-again, off-again relationship between Anton and Lika that is difficult not only for them but for the people in their circle.
Adderson is an excellent writer and regular injections of humour into the storyline provide enjoyable relief. There are many eccentric characters in the book which keep the reader engaged and entertained. The author’s descriptions of Russian people, locations, and events appeal to all of our senses. We can easily put ourselves in the scene when she says, “The tram stank of wet sheepskin and fur, and the bodies of people terrified of visiting the baths in the winter.” When Masha buries her face in a handkerchief handed to her by a friend, “The cloth smelled of scorch from the iron.” Clearly, relatable images, for sure.
Viewing life through Masha’s eyes, we witness jealousy, frustration, disappointment, joy, and a complete spectrum of emotions experienced by her cast of characters. She’s constantly assessing her love and devotion to her brother through the eyes of their circle of family and friends. Is it unusual? Is it unhealthy? Is she wasting her life? Her doubts are confirmed when she replies in answer to the question about why she always wears black, “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.” I absolutely loved reading A Russian Sister. Adderson has written a great story that’s informative and entertaining. Like I said, even if you’re not a fan of Russian literature, give this one a go. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
If A Russian Sister by Caroline Adderson is not available at your local bookstore or library, you can order it from Amazon by clicking on the image of the book.
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