After thoroughly enjoying Dina Rubina’s short story “Яболки из сада Шлицбутера” (“Apples from Shlitzbutter’s Garden”) (read about “Apples” here), I looked forward to reading her novella На Верхней Масловке (On Upper Maslovka). Maslovka, one of Rubina’s few works available in English, is a psychological piece that examines the difficult relationship between an elderly sculptress and a younger man from the theater world. Rubina often incorporates two other characters, a painter and a translator, as observers.
I enjoyed many of Rubina’s scenes and admire her ability to characterize in a way that creates quirky characters who, somehow, combine charm and sharpness. The result is fiction that includes humor but lacks the coziness of, say, the Ann Tyler or Alice Hoffman novels I’ve read. Maslovka feels very real and, at times, very mean, particularly if you know someone who resembles one of the main characters. (This, I admit, may have skewed my impressions of Maslovka substantially.)
Still, Maslovka didn’t quite feel satisfying for me, primarily because Rubina leans more toward peeling back the layers of personality and intricacies of relationships than on advancing a story. Yes, she includes story threads and events in the present, but her real talent is linking seemingly disparate character sketches, descriptions, and flashbacks into something more substantial.
Readers who enjoy vivid imagery and phrasing plus glimpses into Russian life – as well as the afore-mentioned focus on character over plot – should enjoy On Upper Maslovka very much. I liked it enough to read it to the end, which I thought summed things (I won’t say what) up nicely, but I often felt weighted down by details and back stories.
On Upper Maslovka is available in an ebook English translation here, along with a summary of the novella and a sample from the translation. The sample of Marian Schwartz’s translation captures the feel of Rubina’s writing nicely.
P.S. Dina Rubina’s Web site was down when I made this post, but I left the link in because I hope the site will soon be back online.