Summary and book reviews of A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

A Terrible Country

A Novel

by Keith Gessen

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen X
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

A literary triumph about Russia, family, love, and loyalty—the first novel in ten years from a founding editor of n+1 and author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

When Andrei Kaplan's older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei must take stock of his life in New York. His girlfriend has stopped returning his text messages. His dissertation adviser is dubious about his job prospects. It's the summer of 2008, and his bank account is running dangerously low. Perhaps a few months in Moscow are just what he needs. So Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn, packs up his hockey stuff, and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother, a woman who has outlived her husband and most of her friends. She survived the dark days of communism and witnessed Russia's violent capitalist transformation, during which she lost her beloved dacha. She welcomes Andrei into her home, even if she can't always remember who he is.

Andrei learns to navigate Putin's Moscow, still the city of his birth, but with more expensive coffee. He looks after his elderly—but surprisingly sharp!—grandmother, finds a place to play hockey, a café to send emails, and eventually some friends, including a beautiful young activist named Yulia. Over the course of the year, his grandmother's health declines and his feelings of dislocation from both Russia and America deepen. Andrei knows he must reckon with his future and make choices that will determine his life and fate. When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei's politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid.

A wise, sensitive novel about Russia, exile, family, love, history and fate, A Terrible County asks what you owe the place you were born, and what it owes you. Writing with grace and humor, Keith Gessen gives us a brilliant and mature novel that is sure to mark him as one of the most talented novelists of his generation.

1.
i move to moscow

In the late summer of 2008, I moved to Moscow to take care of my grandmother. She was about to turn ninety and I hadn't seen her for nearly a decade. My brother, Dima, and I were her only family; her lone daughter, our mother, had died years earlier. Baba Seva lived alone now in her old Moscow apartment. When I called to tell her I was coming, she sounded very happy to hear it, and also a little confused.

My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981. I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, he returned to Moscow to make his fortune. Since then he had made and lost several fortunes; where things stood now I wasn't sure. But one day he Gchatted me to ask if I could come to Moscow and stay with Baba Seva while he went to London for an unspecified period of time.

"Why do you need to go to London?"

"I'll explain when I see you...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The novel is sprawling; Gessen includes details that some might find mundane or superfluous, descriptions of hockey matches, a play-by-play of Andrei unclogging the kitchen sink and cooking kasha, and a long description of a documentary about the poet Tsvetaeva. However, these scenes serve purposes: providing the reader with Russian historical background, or illustrating Andrei's growing affinity for his native land, idiosyncrasies and all. At its core, A Terrible Country is about feeling alien, and how it is possible to use that alienation to one's advantage. It is moving, troubling, and even funny on occasion, in a particularly Russian way that will appeal to fans of Dostoevsky and Gogol. While the ending of the novel is a little unsatisfying, it is true to its protagonist, and makes narrative sense. Furthermore, it is apt; Russian literature is not known for happy endings...continued

Full Review (652 words).

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Vanity Fair
Taking such an intimate trip through the recent past of Putin's Russia is fascinating, made more so by the presence of Andrei's lively, sorrowful, unpredictable grandmother.

The New York Times - Boris Fishman
The last 50 pages of the book read like a hasty after-action report, and Andrei should be pretty miffed with his author for imposing on him a denouement, and diminution, not only rushed but, in part, difficult to believe. Yet even here the novel manages to offer hard-won insight into an impossible place. I don’t know if A Terrible Country is good fiction, but you won’t read a more observant book about the country that has now been America’s bedeviling foil for almost a century.

The Guardian - Marcel Theroux
Keith Gessen’s second novel is a very funny, perceptive, exasperated, loving and timely portrait of a country that its author clearly knows well.

Kirkus Reviews
Timely and engaging ... Moscow-born Gessen displays an affecting sympathy for the smaller players on history's stage.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Excellent and trenchant... While poised to critique Putin's Russia, this sharp, stellar novel becomes, by virtue of Andrei's ultimate self-interest, a subtle and incisive indictment of the American character.

Library Journal
Starred Review. With wit and humor, ­Gessen delivers a heartwarming novel about the multitudinous winding roads that lead us home.

Author Blurb George Saunders, Man Booker Prize-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo
A cause for celebration: big-hearted, witty, warm, compulsively readable, earnest, funny, full of that kind of joyful sadness I associate with Russia and its writers.

Author Blurb Elif Batuman, author of The Idiot and The Possessed
By turns sad, funny, bewildering, revelatory, and then sad again, it recreates the historical-psychological experience of returning, for twenty-first-century reasons, to a country one's parents left in the twentieth century ... Gessen is a master journalist and essayist, as well as a storyteller with a scary grasp on the human heartstrings, and A Terrible Country unites the personal and political as only the best novels do.

Author Blurb Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
A Terrible Country is an engaging and entertaining novel, full of humor and humility...his affectionate, clear-eyed portrait of one terrible country has plenty to teach us about our own.

Author Blurb Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
A fun, funny but sincere novel that explores with real integrity what it means to be an American ex-pat who can always leave, A Terrible Country is one of the most addictive and affecting books I've read in a while.

Author Blurb Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid
I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to a busy person who otherwise refuses to touch fiction. The only up-to-the-minute, topical, relevant, and necessary novel of 2018 that never has to mention Trump.

Author Blurb Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors
Keith Gessen has written a poignant yet laugh-out-loud portrait of the new Russia of nightclubs, black Audis, and Wifi cafés, still haunted by an old Russia of kasha, hockey, and Soviet movies. A Terrible Country is a serious book that's a pleasure to read, full of love and sorrow.

Author Blurb Mona Simpson, author of Casebook and Anywhere but Here
For those of us who have grown up reading Russian literature, from Chekhov to Babel to Svetlana Alexievich, following this Americanized narrator through his return to contemporary Moscow offers an education and pure delight.

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Beyond the Book

Persecution of Dissidents in Putin's Russia

Pussy RiotThe political activists in A Terrible Country live in fear of arrest due to the threat of harsh sentences and even bodily harm that is frequently the result of protesting the Putin regime. Putin has a long history of silencing his detractors, using both legal and illegal means, with many critics ending up imprisoned in a gulag (a forced work camp) or dead. In 2014, the Kremlin essentially outlawed peaceful protests, and the punishment for taking part in such an assembly can be up to five years in prison. The repressive nature of the regime's legislature is perhaps best exemplified by the "single person picket" laws enacted in 2004 and amended in 2012. These state that anyone seeking to picket must do so alone "at a minimum distance of 50 ...

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