Excerpt from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Forty Rooms

by Olga Grushin

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin X
Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin
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  • Published:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages


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Poornima Apte
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My father pulls the curtains closed before turning back to me.

"Never mind," he says briskly, "I'm not afraid to admit a mistake. Perhaps this was not the most fruitful subject for tonight's discussion. Since you seem to miss people and dogs so much, how about some Fra Angelico? Here, let me show you."

Once more he leafs through the Renaissance volume. This time the bookmark is pink, and so, I see, are the predominant colors of these new paintings, in which roses bloom, ladies blush, and saints are ruddy with health, all against a background of pink cliffs, red roofs, and churches aglow with sunrises. I am charmed. My father has already begun to speak when, against our custom, I plunge into his steady stream of dates and names with a breathless, out-of-turn question.

"Papa, are houses in Italy really so pink?"

"I suppose it is possible," he says. "I'm glad you like these. But to continue, in 1436 Fra Angelico moved to Florence, to the new Friary of San Marco, and there –"

And there are tiny yellow flowers in the swaying meadows and tiny blue flowers on the hems of girls' dresses, and tiny monsters bare their sharp little teeth in the soft swell of harbors, and bells ring, and birds chirp, and everyone, everyone has a golden halo. A few chubby monks have clumsily dropped a slab of stone onto a writhing blue imp and now stand around with guilty downcast eyes, debating how best to rescue him. A mother sits encumbered by a fat baby in her lap, and as her gaze follows the flights of some great white birds soaring toward the sun on rainbow-colored wings, her sad face brightens with the desire to leave the baby behind and fly away with them. These paintings are like fairy-tales, and while the stories do not all have happy endings – I notice a number of heads freshly detached from their bodies, floating in the pools of what looks like my mother's strawberry preserves – they make me dizzy with the premonition that somewhere, somewhere out there, a place so vivid, so alive, really exists.

"Haven't you been to Italy?" I interrupt again, too excited to listen.

My father coughs shortly.

"No," he says.

I tear my eyes away from the book. "You haven't been to Italy?"


"But you've been to Greece."

"No, not to Greece either," he says.

"To France then? And England?"


"But – to Egypt? China? India?"

Silent now, he shakes his head. I stare past him, at the lacquered spines of the art volumes lined in their neat alphabetical rows on the shelves, as I struggle to find the right words for the enormity of my disappointment.

"But . . . but you've told me about all these places. I thought . . . Haven't you ever wanted to go there?"

"Well now, you see," he begins, then clears his throat, and again says, "Well, you see," and falls silent. The telephone rings in the hallway. We listen to the rush of my mother's slippers slapping toward the sound, the lilt of her muffled voice. In the next moment the door of the study is cracked open.

My mother does not come in.

"Sorry to interrupt, it's Orlov," she says from the corridor. She is cupping her hand over the receiver, the cord stretched as far as it will go. "He wants to discuss tomorrow's seminar, but I've told him you're busy and will call him back in – what shall I say, half an hour?"

"No need, I'll take it, we are finished," my father answers, as he closes the book and rises from his armchair. "We must do better on our choice of subject next week. Perhaps Andrei Rublev?" He speaks the last words already past the threshold, picking up the telephone. "Yes, hello?"

Stunned, I look at the clock on his desk. There are still twenty minutes left of the Culture Hour. He has never done this before. All at once I am certain it's because I interrupted him so much, and I feel chastened.

Excerpted from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin. Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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