Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: The Wife and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov

I've been wanting to read Chekhov' short stories for quite some time. I was finally prompted to start when Francine Prose, in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them wrote that Chekhov's short stories were her favorite and that all aspiring writers should read them. Prose wrote a lot about Chekhov's stories, especially about their well-crafted language, character descriptions, and how they broke common rules.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was a tad disappointed with The Wife, and Other Stories. I do admire Chekhov's character description and his description of nature, particularly the Russian landscape. For me, though, a lot of his plots fell short. Some of the stories in The Wife, and Other Stories had no real beginning and no real ending. Rather they were inter-connected parts of other stories that were included in the volume, and read like a novel told in serials, with one short story picking up where another left off. It was interesting to read about the day in the life of a 19th-century Russian official, and to read his philosophical meanderings related to peasantry and education and the like, but some of the stories consisted of only that, and after awhile parts of them became rather redundant and boring. To me Tolstoi's Anna Karenina, which I have been reading off and on for some time (way too long!) now, contains everything that most of these short stories did, and more, because it sticks with the same engaging characters and has a moving plot, even if some of it gets bogged down with the same philosophical meanderings. Perhaps if I hadn't read Tolstoi or Dostoevsky I would have really loved Chekhov, I'm not sure. At this point in time, though, although I liked him, I didn't like him as much as those two authors.

I liked the stories contained in the beginning of The Wife, and Other Stories more than the stories at the end; perhaps it was due to the redundancy factor. My favorite was "The Grasshopper," which was about a young woman who was married to a rather boring, older doctor, but her heart was with the theater and with the dramatic and famous people she hung out with. Eventually she has an affair and leaves her husband, and in many way this is a timeless story about relationships, that could have been told yesterday as much as it could have been told in Chekhov's time. The story seemed so realistic that I did some research into Chekhov's life and found that he married an actress named Olga (which is the name of the wife in the story) and that there were many other similarities between his life with her and the life of the couple in the story.

I will read more short stories by Chekhov and thus far my conclusion is that I really enjoy some of them and I don't really enjoy others. So it may be one of those experiences where I read everything to find the gems. I did enjoy The Wife, and Other Stories although I didn't love it as much as I was expecting to. I give it 3.5 stars.

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