Book Review: Sonechka, by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Images That Tell Stories

Dec 21, 2009 Clarissa Caldwell
Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya writes poignant, telling descriptions of her characters in Sonechka: A Novella and Stories.

The Russian Author Ludmila Ulitskaya is a master of description. Her physical descriptions of characters—especially females—are particularly potent in the novella, Sonechka. Sonechka is a story about a bookish woman who marries an ex-convict. Ulitskaya is a character-driven author, and thus chooses pertinent details to describe them, adds a simile, and creates an unusual sketch of a person. These sketches, however, are not merely interesting, they are meaningful. With few words, without the reader even registering the tact, she’s given a very significant bit of information under the guise of a vivid image.

Sonechka’s Pear-Shaped Nose
Sonechka provides a description of Sonechka on the opening page: "Her nose really was pear-shaped, and lank broad-shouldered Sonechka, with her skinny legs and flat unmemorable rear end, had only one indisputable physical asset: large womanly breasts, which ballooned at an early age but seemed out of proportion with the rest of her thin body" (1). The pear-shaped nose is palpable, vivid, sweet but awkward. Above all, it is out of proportion, as Sonechka is with her life. She has a flat behind, a tribute to her insignificant past, which is particularly awkward in comparison with her large breasts, predicting something significant ahead. In these tiny details, we sense the odd shape of this woman’s life, the surprises in store, the strange pattern that will occur. Later, Ulitskaya writes: “Her hair turned gray and she had filled out markedly” (32), indicated the balance. Meanwhile, though, Sonechka’s cloaked in loose dresses, hiding her unbalanced figure in the haven of the library.

Tonya’s Proportions
Later, Sonechka's daughter Tonya wears these same dresses, which Ulitskaya portrays in a snapshot: "The tall scrawny girl was swamped in Sonechka’s loose shirts, girt with a faded cashmere scarf. Around a narrow face, like a mature dandelion head as yet unblown by the wind, her wavy, wiry hair stood proud, untamable by comb, unbraidable into pigtails" (27 – 28). Tonya, like her mother, has an unusual figure. She’s embarrassed by her “large stature, feet, and breasts” (32) out of proportion with the rest of her body. She also has exceptional hair, though, that sprouts around her face like a mature dandelion. She is a wish that has not yet gone free in the wind; but she is a wild creature, untamable. Like her mother, her appearance invokes the future.

Jasia’s Glassy Charm
Jasia is an equally vivid image of the future. She has a face “as smooth as a new-laid egg” (38), and innocent creature waiting to hatch and live her dream. Like Tonya, Jasia has an unusual gait: “the lower part of her body seemed to drag slightly behind the upper part… the movement of her knees suggested they were pushing against the heavy fabric of a long evening dress rather than her tatty frock” (42). Jasia walks as though she were made for a life other than her own, her past dragging heavily behind, her body optimistically forward. This, interestingly, recalls Sonechka’s strange alignment before Robert. Later, Robert fleetingly notes that Jasia has “the petite glassy charm of a wineglass,” (45) remarking on her smooth, light curvature. There is a note of foreboding, here, as Jasia will indeed be that sweet pleasure he tastes briefly towards the end of his life.

All About Women
Robert, like the men in the story is described briefly, though less intently. There is, for example, the “puny freckled boy with the buck teeth” (34) and the “short dumpy boy” (35). It is the women, however, that are center stage their bodies and hair telling the stories of their future.

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