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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Deirdre McNamer

At a glance
My Russian
by Deirdre McNamer

Ballantine
304 pages, $14
paperback

Deirdre McNamer came onto the Montana writing scene in 1991 when her first novel, “Rima in the Weeds,” hit the bookstores.

Since then, between placing stories and essays in such esteemed publications as the New Yorker and the New York Times Books Review, McNamer – a professor of creative writing at Missoula’s University of Montana – has written two more novels: 1994’s “One Sweet Quarrell” and 1999’s “My Russian.”

It’s that lattermost novel, the story of a woman attempting to break out of a life mundanely lived, that is the January read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

“My Russian” revolves around Francesca Woodbridge, the wife of a lawyer whose comfortable existence masks a deep dissatisfaction long before her husband one day is inexplicably shot (though not killed). It is that incident, though, that allows Francesca the chance to take a long hard look at this life she has allowed herself to be drawn into – an existence marked by an affair with a Russian gardener.

The woman does so though a bizarre conceit: Telling her family that she has gone to travel in Greece, Francesco actually rents a room close to her home. There she lives, disguised as an old woman, intent on discovering who put a bullet into her husband.

Yet don’t get the wrong impression. “My Russian” is not a standard mystery, one that leads step by step to the solution of a crime. It is, instead, an exploration of the circumstances that has left a woman wanting … more.

McNamer, who has read at past Get Lit! events, is an old-fashioned wordsmith – with none of the negativity the age-conscious compound modifier might seem to carry. Her writing style is, at times, more poetry than prose, showing an ability at description that is as exact as it can be unusual.

Take the following passage from “My Russian,” which is McNamer’s attempt to portray an elderly couple: “They are the sort of old ones who seem to be melting – all the corners growing rounded, the head sagging forward, the body folding into itself in a whispery version of the way the lit-up monks folded themselves into their brilliant oblivion. Such a thing to think! But they keep coming to me, these illuminations of the ordinary people I call to mind. At this moment, yes, those old people sit on the edge of a bed worrying over a restaurant receipt, their white hair beginning to smoke.”

Yet what sets McNamer apart is her ability to get fully into the lives of her characters, opening them up for our examination in a way that is at once ruthlessly revealing and understandably forgiving.

“The notion of someone spying on family and friends is a tantalizing if somewhat implausible device, but Deirdre McNamer pulls it off, serving up a serious, suspenseful examination of identity, friendship, marriage and motherhood,” wrote a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. “Of the handful of novels about women in midlife crisis I’ve read (and reviewed) in the past nine or so months, this is one of the most original.”

“McNamer writes with extraordinary emotional acuity and with a keen sense of the small detail that says it all,” wrote a Chicago Tribune reviewer, who went on to describe the book as “quietly devastating.”

After you read the book yourself, you may agree: Never has devastation felt so satisfying.

The Spokesman-Review Book Club invites you to get involved in the book-choosing process. Rules that apply: Books must be in paperback, must be written by a Pacific Northwest writer (or be set in the Northwest or involve some important Northwest issue) and can comprise any genre. Send your suggestions to danw@spokesman.com. February’s read: Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” (Vintage, 447 pages, $14.95 paper).

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster