Jacob’s Ladder

Written by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Review by Jeff Westerhoff

This multi-generational Russian saga covers the period from 1905 until 2011. In 1911, young Jacob Ossetsky meets and falls in love with Marusya Kerns, an aspiring actress. Jacob eventually joins the army during WWI but, in the 1930s, he is exiled by the Soviet government. He and Marusya live apart for most of their married life, the novel consisting primarily of their correspondence with each other.

Their son, Genrik Ossetsky, eventually marries Amalia Kotenko. Their daughter Nora, born in 1943, carries on the family name. The balance of the novel follows Nora’s life after she becomes a young woman. She is a screenwriter and set designer for plays produced throughout Russia and Europe. Her husband Vitya is a mathematician, considered a genius by many, but unable to handle married life; therefore, they live apart. Meanwhile, Nora has a love affair with Tanzig, the play director whom she works with. In the 1970s and after her grandmother, Marusya’s death, Nora discovers a chest filled with her paternal grandparents’ correspondence.

This is an extremely well-written literary novel of Russian history during the 20th century. The story primarily involves Nora’s life and loves and her problems maintaining a relationship with Tanzig, the director at her various jobs. Most of the early history of the family is told through letters between Marusya and Jacob. Because the novel is not written in a linear manner, I had to refer to the family tree in the front of the book to keep the characters straight. If you are looking for a book that describes the political history of Russia during this time period, however, you may be disappointed.