Friday, March 21, 2008

Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan

I read Lady of the Snakes in less than twenty-four hours. First, because it was a very good, well-written, and engaging story. But second, because I found it hard to read and wanted to get done with it so it didn't drag me done. I sincerely felt like my emotional state of being was being torn down by reading what Pastan had written. For me, it was too real and brought together too many uncomfortable experiences in the past seven years.
The story revolves around Jane Levitsky, an academic who is completely focused on her research - the life and writings of Grigory Karkov and his wife and copywriter Masha Karkova. The story opens with the birth of Levitsky's daughter Maisie. Throughout the birth Levitsky keeps comparing herself to the nineteenth-century Russian. This conscious intertwining of their lives remains a major theme throughout the story.
The second crucial element of the story is the mystery that Levitsky is trying to uncover about Karkov and Karkova based on details she begins to find in her academic research. I found that story was what drew me in and kept me reading. I had a good idea of the outcome, but Pastan managed to make the answer novel enough that it would be unlikely for anyone to guess exactly what will occur.
But, the experiences that Levitsky has as a woman trying to juggle her roles as wife, mother, and academic rubbed me raw. From her advisor telling her she is not a serious academic because she got pregnant to an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague who quit her job to stay home and raise her children I cringed. I was this character. And the uncomfortable conversations that I did not have, I watched and heard about some of my classmates having. In that regard, Pastan has done an incredible job honestly portraying the fine line female academics walk to be everything for everyone.
Moreover, the storyline about Levitsky's waning relationship with her husband as she tries to juggle her first year as a professor with a two-year old at home was poignant. I read interactions between Jane and her husband Billy and nearly cried. I clearly remember moments very like those between my husband and me as I tried to juggle similar loads. Luckily, I have not had to suffer the moments that Levitsky does which allow her to grow into her roles.
If you want to read a book that very accurately portrays the position of strong-minded female academics who want to have it all, this is an excellent book. If you want to read something light that won't make you think - especially if you are a female academic - this is not the best book for you.

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