When Jane and Billy meet in a class about Russian literary genius Grigory Karkov, their world is perfectly balanced between new love and a shared enthusiasm for the writer. Later, as Jane becomes a professor of 19th-century Russian literature specializing in Karkov’s work, life is sweet. Just as Jane takes a detour into the diaries of Masha Karkov, Grigory’s wife, reality takes a detour as well, with the birth of their daughter, Maisie.
Immersed in the darker, more glamorous writing of the Russian mother, Jane is increasingly reluctant to rejoin the daily tasks of wife and mother, short-tempered and sleep-deprived. Suddenly, her bright future becomes far more complicated as reality intrudes and the demands of a crying infant interrupt the long hours of pleasure once enjoyed studying the handwritten pages of Masha’s musings.
When a position is available at the University of Wisconsin, an opening in a department made famous by Professor Otto Sigelmann, aficionado of all things Karkov, Jane and Billy move to Wisconsin with their two-year-old daughter. Jane is fascinated by the odd professor, soon realizing that the sly old man is a great champion of the author, bored with Jane’s interest in Masha’s diaries.
Clinging to the hours with Masha’s diaries for her sanity, Jane resists the call of motherhood. Billy watches his wife with bemusement and irritation as she stumbles through her chores, wanting only to escape into the 19th century, where Masha awaits. Clearly, there is trouble in paradise. When Jane takes a long-delayed trip to see the actual diaries, she stumbles upon information that can propel her career into the spotlight.
But home and emergency call. A reluctant mother answers, her work left unfinished, the tension between husband and wife palpable. Suddenly, there is relief in the person of a graduate student who agrees to help with babysitting, Jane given a temporary reprieve from the problems in her marriage.
Predictably, Jane runs into a wall, forced to consider whether it is possible to have career and family, whether both are possible for such as she. By the time the cracks in the foundation of her marriage are visible, Jane is mired in self-pity and outrage on two fronts, academic and personal, unable to deal with either.
Pastan does an admirable job of illustrating the problems of modern married life and the demands of career and family, as well as the nightmare of childcare that faces working parents. As the couple spirals into an uncommunicative ritual, their problems are exacerbated by Jane’s poor choices and her inability to concede to reality: “Don’t you know the difference between life and art?”
Just as Jane has underestimated the depth of Masha’s commitment to her husband, so has she confused her role as academic, wife and mother. Living in this century while plumbing another through Masha’s diaries, Jane discovers a wisdom that alters her perspective, offering a new appreciation for the complexities of relationships with those we love.