The Woman Who Waited: A Novel
by Andrei Makine
She Promised to Wait and So She Did
A review by Yvonne Zipp
As her fiancé heads off to fight in World War II, a teenage girl promises
that she'll wait for him. He never comes back, but she never gives up. The woman
who waits is a time-honored literary symbol that has starred in a number of
novels, such as the enthralling A
Very Long Engagement, by French author Sebastien Japrisot.
Now Russian-born writer Andrei Makine adds another page to the annals of undying
fidelity with his fine new novel The Woman Who Waited. Makine's books
are deceptively slim: He can pack more in a page than many authors can wedge
into a chapter. His international bestseller Dreams
of My Russian Summers, for example, features prose so rich a reader half
expects mushrooms to sprout as she turns the pages. His ninth novel is less
ambitious, but he uses what could have been a clichéd romance to confound
The woman of the title is Vera, now a middle-aged schoolteacher who cares for
the elderly residents of Mirnoe, a northern village that's been all but abandoned
in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Still beautiful, Vera has become a folk hero among
the villagers during her 30-year vigil. "To begin with, there was nothing
to distinguish Vera from the millions of other women who had lost their men.
Like her they waited, young widows, forsaken lovers. No particular merit in
that," says the narrator, a 20-something writer who's supposed to be cataloging
Mirnoe's vanishing rituals but who has become fascinated by Vera. "This
girl, this Vera, whose faithfulness at first passed unnoticed, later prompted
respectful and sympathetic approval, then, as time went by, a mixture of weariness
and irritation, the shrugging of shoulders reserved for village idiots; then,
later still, indifference, sometimes giving way to the pride local people take
in one of the curiosities of the region, a holy relic, a notably picturesque
rock. One day, in the end, nothing remained of all that.... [Just] the pointlessness
of all judgments, admiring or critical. Only this thought, hazy amid the air's
radiance: 'That's how it is.' "
Vera is too strong and too busy, frankly, to fit passively into the preconceived
notions of either the writer or the other men who fall in love with her. (The
most notable of these is Otar, a foul-mouthed Georgian truck driver who calls
himself "the first swallow of capitalism.")
One of the strengths of the novel is the humorous way Makine consistently upends
the narrator's idealized version of Vera's life. Both she and her story shrug
off stereotypes with an ease that's born of what the narrator calls her goodness.
On his way to help Vera collect an old woman who's the lone holdout in an abandoned
village, he acknowledges the futility of trying to pin Vera down to a page.
His phrases "failed in the face of the impulsive simplicity with which
Vera acted. This led me to the conclusion that good (Good!) is a complex thing
... what looked to others like a good deed was for Vera nothing more than a
habit of long standing."
You can't review Makine's books without mentioning nature. He's practically
Romantic in his descriptions, and the Russian woods, steppes, and lakes come
vividly to life in his books. Certainly, his descriptions of an autumn trip
across a lake in a rowboat, a miniature izba (a traditional Russian log cabin),
of ice breaking "with the sound of a harpsichord" in a well, stand
in lucid quiet compared with the drunken excesses of the dissident literary
scene the narrator left behind in 1970s Leningrad.
Following Vera in her cavalry greatcoat on her errands of mercy through forests
of larches, it's easy to see why the young man falls in love with her; what's
less clear is why Vera would have much patience with his shallow attempts at
categorizing and conquering her. (The fact he's one of the few men under 70
in the area still in possession of all his limbs is, however, a point in his
The soldier who never returned remains a cipher; Makine isn't out to persuade
us that his and Vera's love was one for the ages. But even if the men around
her don't ultimately amount to much, in Vera, Makine has created a woman well
worth waiting for.
Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.
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