The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight is a fantastical novel set in 1990s Russia, or perhaps the Russia of Gina Ochsner’s imagination. The story follows three widows – an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim – who all live in the same condemned apartment building with their children. While there is no plot per se, narratives are provided by the main characters. Christian Lukeria torments her overweight granddaughter Tanya, who spends too much of her time obsessing over colors and clouds; Jewish Olga frets over the fate of her son Yuri and his selfish girlfriend Zoya; Muslim Azade learns people’s secrets by sniffing their poop and worries where she went wrong with her son Vitek. Azade’s husband Mircha commits suicide and returns as a ghost to cause mischief.
Much of the story also revolves around a local museum where Yuri, Zoya, and Tanya all work. None of its exhibits are originals – most were created by Tanya using candy wrappers and glue. However, when the possibility arises of a grant from some wealthy Americans, the entire apartment building is abuzz. The ending is more or less happy, forced, and borders on deus ex machina. But perhaps I’m overthinking this. Russian Dreambook is one of those novels where the reader has to just absorb things as they come and not approach it expecting a coherent storyline.
Looking back on Russian Dreambook, my first thought is…Gina Ochsner truly has a way with words! Seriously, Ochsner has a poetic style of writing and a marvelous way of balancing character insight and a strong metaphorical sense of place.
I encountered a handful of scenes both lyrical and meaningful – for example, this moment when Olga struggles with her job of translating for a local newspaper, where she is required to create euphemisms for public consumption:
Through the snow Olga trudged, dimly aware that in faraway places people spoke with purer words of unvarnished meaning. Or maybe not. Maybe at other news agencies in other countries people simply told more palatable lies. And as she rounded the corner and climbed over the remains of the broken stone archway that marked the entrance to the courtyard, she felt despair sliding down her throat, setting up quick residence in her stomach. Language was, after all, just word shaped stains, simply another way to evade and obscure the truth.
But unfortunately, Ochsner’s writing style alone is not enough to float this novel into the air, and the book is weak in all other regards. I like magical realism and lyrical prose as much as the next gal, but after a certain point there needs to be something substantive for the reader to hold onto. I could have DNFed the book at any point while reading and still end up where I did after slogging through 370 pages. In the book’s finale, key moments are lost in the scramble to make something of the previously introduced metaphors, and what doesn’t serve that end – for example, the repeated conversations about the war in Chechnya – is filler meant to space out the ending. Russian Dreambook is, at its heart, an extended character sketch. At least seventy percent of the novel is dedicated to explaining the group’s personalities, motivations, and histories. Yet somehow these characters never manage to ascend past Russian and Jewish stereotypes. Their lives seem exaggerated and farfetched, and the setting – post-Soviet Russia – does not ring true. Ochsner is clearly talented, but drawn-out description and flowery sentences do not a great novel make.
The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner. Pub. 2010 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt. Hardcover, 370 pages. ISBN13: 9780618563739