Our Country Friends
Critically acclaimed, OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS by Gary Shteyngart, follows a group that, in March of 2020, gathers at the bungalow colony of Sasha Senderovsky in upstate New York to wait out Covid together. Eight in number, each is connected in one way or another to Senderovsky, and it is an international cast. The owner and his wife are Russian-born, their daughter was adopted from China, two guests have Korean roots, one is from India, one is American, and one (known only as “the Actor”) is … whatever.
The writing is admirable. The author is a talented wordsmith, describing locations and personalities in unique ways. One-liners abound. There are humorous points in the book. Indeed, if reading a book that was named one of the best books of the year is your thing, you’ll love this one.
I wanted more. For starters, I liked only one of the eight characters. The others were self-centered and self-indulgent, ruled by privilege, vanity, and a sense of entitlement. As a lover of human growth stories, I found the pickings slim. These characters sobered as time in quarantine passed, but I’m not sure they grew.
Since both the author and his main character are Russian-born New Yorkers, a shadow of Russian literature lurks in the background. Typically, the Russian novel is a very long piece containing a ream of information, and in a sense, this does describe Our Country Friends. Details on the foreign roots of the characters emerge more strongly as the story progresses. There is material on their earlier triumphs and failures, on their hopes and dreams, on their current stasis.
But then there is the end of the book, which drags on and on, veering into fantasy, giving glimpses of earlier lives that have little to do with the plot and suggesting that the author, like his characters, was a bit too enamored of his work.
As a social commentary on the times, both politically and socially, Our Country Friends is spot-on. As a story of love in its various disguises, it is passable. As an exploration of The Pandemic, I felt it missed the mark.
I listened to the audiobook, which may have been a mistake. Given the number of characters, it was hard keeping them straight at the start. That said, the narrator of the audiobook does a masterful job. I would listen to others of his books.