A Great End-of-Summer Read: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “Medea and Her Children”

You might expect a Russian novel called Medea and Her Children to be dark and tinged with horror.  I assure you, it is not that Medea. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s heroine, Medea Georgievna Sinoply Mendez, is the childless, widowed, beloved matriarch of a large Greek family in Russia.  She speaks passable Pontic Greek, which lags 1,000 years behind Modern Greek; she is the “last remaining pure-blooded Greek of a family settled since time immemorial on the Tauride coast, a land still mindful of its ties with ancient Greece.”

In this buoyant extended-family saga, Ultiskaya scrutinizes the complicated lives of dozens of characters.  (There is a family tree at the beginning of the book.)  Every spring and summer, Medea’s relatives gather at her small house in the Crimea.  They bring their problems with them, but they are soothed by the charm and simplicity of Medea’s house near the sea. 

In the spring, her nephew, Georgii, a geologist, is the first to arrive, accompanied by his son, Artyom.  Georgii heads for the wooden hut with the toilet, because it has the best view of the twin  mountains tapering down to the sea.  He also enjoys sitting in the chilly summer kitchen at night with Medea over a late dinner.  And there is something humorous about Medea’s insistence on small portions at meals:  if someone wants a second helping, she suggests they take a piece of bread. 

 Georgii would like to move to the Crimea, where he knows he would have a good life.  He has spent the last 10 years writing a dissertation he cannot finish, “and which sucked him into itself like an evil quagmire if he went anywhere near it.”  He wants to leave the city and start over: he becomes more and more determined as the summer progresses.

The doings of the Sinoply family fascinate two mousy summer visitors down the road, Nora and her daughter, Tanya.  Nora admires their courage greatly:  while she and Tanya are terrified of a poisonous snake, Georgii and his son pick it up and examine it with fascination.  Nora starts to come out of her shell after the Sinoplies invite her and Tanya to take a camping trip with them at the seaside.  There is always room for one or two more at Medea’s, and they are assimilated into the extended family. 

 Medea’s great-niece, Masha, is a stable wife and mother of a son these days, but she is fragile:  she attempted suicide as an unhappy child.  After her parents died in a car accident, she lived with her mad grandmother, who referred to Masha as their “murderer.” Fortunately, her great-aunt Alexandra took Masha in and raised her with her own children: Masha became especially close to Alexandra’s daughter, Nike.  

Encouraged by sexy, promiscuous Nike, a divorcee and relaxed mother of two, Masha initiates an affair with Butonov, a handsome sports doctor who is vacationing in the Crimea.  What she doesn’t know is that Nike and Butonov are also having a casual affair. Blithely ignorant, Masha writes poems and letters to Butonov, who groans when he receives them.  It never occurs to either Butonov or Nike what the consequences might be if Masha finds out about them. 

Medea herself has had her trials.  She was happily married to a dentist, Samuel, who she assumed was faithful to her.  After his death, she found letters about his affair with her sister, Alexandra, and learned that her niece, Nike, was Samuel’s child.  Medea sets out to confront Alexandra in Moscow, but only gets as far as Theodosia, where she visits her best friend Elena (also her sister-in-law).  She enjoys her conversations with Elena, and realizes a confrontation with Alexandra might end in a break between the  sisters. 

Medea and Her Children, translated from Russian by Arch Tait, is a  perfect book to read at the end of summer. Summer in the Crimea seems blissful! And we never before considered summer in the Crimea. This novel was nominated for the Russian Booker Award in 1997, and Ulitskays has won numerous literary prizes in Russia, Italy, Austria, France, and China, and was nominated for the International Booker Prize in 2009.

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