Review of “Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart

This clever, often amusing, and touching story is written in the style of a Russian novel with a very decided flavor of “The Big Chill” but set in 2020 during the pandemic.

Alexander Senderovsky (known as Sasha), 48, has invited his best friends to his “House on the Hill” – a main house and five bungalows on a hundred or so acres in upstate New York – to stay during the pandemic. (He also refers to it as “the Sasha Senderovsky Bungalow Colony.”). He, his wife Masha, and their hyper, possibly “on the borderlands of autism” adopted Asian daughter Natasha (“Nat”) who is “eight going on eighty,” welcome a guest for each bungalow: Ed Kim, from a wealthy Korean family and who traveled incessantly because “velocity was his friend”; Vinod Mehta, who had lived with Sasha for a decade beginning in college; Karen Cho, a software designer who was a friend of Sasha’s from high school; Dee Cameron, a former student of Sasha’s in his writing workshop; and “the Actor” – someone slated to star in a miniseries based on one of Sasha’s books, and of whom everyone was in awe. Unlike the others, the Actor doesn’t stay the whole time, and that was a good thing. As Nat observed:

“After the Actor had left, everyone behaved differently, more kindly, less self-consciously, as if this was just any other summer but with blue surgical masks and spent bottles of hand sanitizer littering the side of the road.”

This group of mostly second generation immigrants make up, as Sasha calls them in a reference to the fake inclusiveness of the former USSR, “the House of People’s Friendship.”

The author shows the bonds among the people in this group developing and morphing through the lens of a number of issues that affect them, including the prospect of illness and death, success and failure, immigration, racism, the lure of dreams, the families you inherit, the families you make, and the balms of love and sex. They all become closer to one another. As Sasha says to one of them, “How are we not going to be friends? What would be the point of anything?”

Discussion: Shteyngart has clearly shaped his poignant saga to reflect the style of 19th Century Russian writers. As author Francine Prose wrote, those authors made the individual seem universal, with works marked by “the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience.” She added that great Russian writers “persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time.” Shteyngart too has summoned timeless themes to create unforgettable characters, even though they are at simultaneously every man, and every woman.

The writing is quite good, full of trenchant insights uttered by the characters about each other, as in this passage revealing Masha’s initial thoughts about Ed:

“Ed reminded her of her husband’s parents. Talking with them was like dealing with a smiling adversary who kept a handful of poisoned toothpicks in his pocket. Every time you let your guard down, there would be a sharp prick at your haunches.”

And there is this humorous observation, showing how Sasha is always thinking like a writer, so that he evaluates what is happening around him as if it were for a script. When he shows Dee to her bungalow and she excuses herself to go to the not-quite-soundproof bathroom:

Student peeing, he thought to himself, not lasciviously, but filing it away for some possible future reference.”

Evaluation: This book is highly recommended for the writing, the insights into human nature and family, or even if one is just looking for exceptional pandemic fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2021

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4 Responses to Review of “Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart

  1. harvee says:

    Pandemic fiction to add to the pandemic film I watched on Netflix. The film was comedy, however, but laugh out loud good. Stuck Together.

  2. Care says:

    I’m reading this right now! I appreciate your review, but I’ll read it AFTER. 🙂

  3. Jeanne says:

    I enjoyed the allusions and references to fiction, but I didn’t feel the “human nature” part of it because I didn’t identify or even sympathize much with any of these very privileged characters

    • I agree with you very much. If the writing weren’t so well done, I would have rated it lower because I couldn’t stand the characters much (but then again, I don’t know how that relates to how one should “rate” a book. But in terms of enjoyment….)

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