A Russian Sister: A Novel

Written by Caroline Adderson
Review by Larry Zuckerman

It’s winter 1889, and Masha C., a Moscow schoolteacher, fears for her brother, Antosha, a famous short-story writer and physician, whose depression tears at her heart. Hoping to lift his spirits—and bring him love—Masha introduces him to her colleague Lika, a beautiful, vivacious young woman. The devoted sister will have cause to regret it.

We’re talking about Anton Chekhov and his family (though, for some reason, neither the jacket flap nor the narrative says so). As a Chekhov admirer, I appreciate homage to the master, as with the sly, even slapstick humor that punctuates a largely painful tale. Adderson’s prose also follows the Chekhovian model somewhat, relying on sparse, well-chosen physical details: “Lika sidled up to the coat stand as if it were her chaperone”; or “The Borzois were dozing under the piano as Georgi played, their wavy coats spread out like silken mats.” Less to my taste, Adderson often explains these moments’ emotional meanings, undermining their effect.

Little happens in A Russian Sister, and there’s no central event or climax, only evidence that Anton Chekhov, though kind and generous toward humanity, tortured his intimates, especially women, often in passive-aggressive ways. I never knew that dismaying fact, but once I learned it, early on, I kept waiting for further developments. The characters, including Masha as protagonist, move from A to B and back multiple times, and though that’s true to certain lives—and the Chekhovian worldview—I wanted to feel the pathos in their self-imprisonment, yet somehow never got there.

Readers of literary fiction will enjoy the prose, and those curious about 19th-century Russian society will find vivid angles and corners. But overall, I think the novel misses the mark.