Thoughts on Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent

10/9/16: This review is a candidate for revision.

The Good

  1. Very well-written main characters. When the story followed their lives, it was compelling and entertaining.
  2. The first section of a hundred pages was a gorgeous coming-of-age tale. (But unfortunately Ulitskaya didn’t keep that up…)
  3. Surprisingly, the novel helped me understand the life of dissidents between Stalin’s death and the early 1980s. Everything’s here: the hardships, the prejudices, injustices, and fear, but also the friendships, ideals and the willingness to fight against those obstacles and barriers put up by the system.

The Bad

  1. There were far too many characters, many of them insignificant. The most interesting ones were often sidelined in order to follow relationships that in the end didn’t matter.
  2. To the reader uninitiated in Russian culture: before reading, study up on Russian history, Russian authors, and classical music–otherwise there will be huge tracts of writing that’ll leave you lost.
  3. Time periods skip back and forth between chapters. People who died in one chapter reappear – alive – in later chapters. It was difficult to determine what time frame any chapter reflected. I also found the narrator’s tendency to announce conclusions of storylines before telling the story annoying. Ever heard of “show, don’t tell”?
  4. At almost 600 pages, the book never seems to end. Without an overarching plot arc, there was no natural ending point for all the narratives. Just when I thought I’d finally finished the story, I would turn the page to find another chapter or an epilogue. After a while, I no longer felt compelled to turn the pages.
  5. Had this book not been written primarily for the intelligentsia, it would’ve been much more enjoyable.

Billed as “an absorbing novel of dissident life in the Soviet Union”, The Big Green Tent is an ambitious novel that fulfills its purpose with mixed success. But for me personally, the book didn’t live up to the highly positive critical reception I’d seen before picking it up. Nor can I say that it achieved the greatness of the Russian literary pantheon it seemingly sought to emulate.

Ehhh, 2 stars.

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Translated by Bela Shayevich. Pub. 2015 by Farrar, Straus ad Giroux. Hardcover, 587 pages. ISBN13: 9780374166670

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