Guest Post: LADY OF THE SNAKES by Rachel Pastan

The following is a guest post from EDIWTB reader and contributor Nancy West. It’s a review of Rachel Pastan’s Lady of the Snakes (which I discussed on the blog here). Thanks for the review, Nancy!

Pastan Novels coalesce around subsets of society – and yet it always seems there are some subsets still to be covered. For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked at different groups –  families driving cross-country for a summer vacation; college graduates backpacking in southeast Asia; office workers playing office politics – and thought, “I want to read a novel that explains exactly what it’s like to be them.” And sometimes I find that novel, the one that explicates how a particular segment of society lives: for example, “The Beach” by Alex Garland in the case of the backpacking college students; or “Drop City” by T.C. Boyle in regard to commune dwellers – both great novels that I highly recommend. My sister is a tenured professor in the humanities, and ever since she was a graduate student, I’ve on occasion listened to her talk with her colleagues and thought “I don’t understand what it’s like to be them, but if there were a really good novel about their lives, maybe I would.”

Now there is just such a novel about academia: Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan. Its protagonist, Jane Levitsky, is a young mother earning her Ph.D and embarking upon a promising career as a professor of Russian literature; or maybe I should say Jane Levitsky is a scholar of Russian literature beginning her journey through motherhood. Jane is neither a mother nor a scholar first; the two run along separate but equal tracks in her life. Neither one ever seems to take the upper hand over the other, though Jane herself would probably hastily and self-consciously rank motherhood over scholarship if she had to choose. But we know better: she is both, and prioritizing them would be impossible for her.

Which is how academics are, and just as this character should be, based on my observations. At the end of an arduous labor, she thinks of a childbirth scene written by one of the Russian writers she has studied and then realizes too late that maybe she should have been admiring her newborn instead; when a personal crisis comes to a climax in her household, it happens at the exact same time as an equally calamitous crisis in her scholarly research. To Jane, the two sometimes seem like conflicting forces – like all working mothers, she struggles with the most basic issues concerning balance, such as how to find sufficient childcare so that she has enough time for her research – but to the reader, who doesn’t have to take Jane’s worries as personally as she does, the inextricability of the two are what make her story so compelling.

Yes, there are other books about working mothers and the impossibility of balancing family life and career: as Gayle said when blogging about “I Don’t Know How She Does it,” the subject in and of itself has already become tiresome to some of us. But Pastan makes it seem as if these struggles happen on a different level for academics, for whom it’s not that they don’t want to put their research aside but rather that they inhabit two parallel universes: their field of scholarship and their actual lives. I don’t mean to imply that the work of professors is more demanding or more absorbing than that of any other professionals – mothers who are law students, cancer researchers, actors, journalists or in any number of careers face the same conflicts. But by immersing her protagonist in the murky fictional world of Russian novels, Pastan has found a particularly evocative way to illustrate the conflict.

And on a completely separate topic, the fact that the novelist that Jane Levitsky is studying does not really exist and therefore Pastan wrote not only her own novel but all the fictional passages from nonexistent Russian authors excerpted within the novel is frankly mind-boggling. It’s a terrific read and a memorable and innovative portrayal of something we might have thought we’d all seen enough of: work/life balance and all its inevitable pitfalls.


One comment

  • TLB
    August 1, 2008 - 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Nancy – thank you for posting this. I just finished Lady of the Snakes and thoroughly enjoyed it. What struck me most was the depiction of Jane’s “juggle” – she did not have a hundred thoughts and to-do lists in her mind. On the contrary, when she turned to her work, she felt like she was “deep sea diving” – I loved that description of her pure, total immersion in work and scholarship, when she was able to block out the world. I did get tired of hearing about “Masha”-this and “Masha”-that but that is a testament to Pastan’s writing ability. That is really how consumed with Masha Jane was. She is a great writer – I am going to check out her other book next.

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