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Lady of the Snakes    by Rachel Pastan order for
Lady of the Snakes
by Rachel Pastan
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2008 (2008)

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*   Reviewed by Pat Elliott

Jane Levitsky wants it all. She is a young professor of nineteenth-century Russian literature. She is married to Billy. Maisie is their child. When Maisie is two, Jane is appointed professor of Slavics at the University of Madison. Suddenly Jane has all she ever dreamed of, including a house with a yard and something she never planned for, responsibilities.

Jane wants to make a name for herself in the academic world writing about the novels of Grigory Karkov and the diaries of his wife, Masha. Jane knows her predecessor at the university, Otto Sigelman, is an expert on Karkov but she didn't expect him to continue to come to the university and inhabit an office next door to her own.

Billy is a long-suffering, sweet husband but Maisie is as demanding as any normal two year old. Jane is so caught up in her desire to examine Karkov's life through his wife's diaries that she cannot see what is happening in her own home.

Masha's dairies, all about her life with Karkov, become an escape for Jane. She finds her current life and Masha's are not all that different. Sigelman tries to discourage Jane's interest in Masha, declaring that women in those days had nothing to contribute to the writing world. Jane compares Masha's writings to those of Karkov and discovers that maybe, just maybe, Karkov stole the words right out of his wife's mouth. Meanwhile Billy betrays her trust and sleeps with the nanny.

As many contemporary career women have discovered, it is difficult to balance a marriage, children and a career. Jane experiences the heartache and indecision of choosing which life is best for her. In the middle of all her problems at home, Jane is discovering information that could make her famous in her field. She is also discovering you can't trust everyone you meet.

Although this novel has an academic setting, with many flashbacks to Masha's live in Russia, contemporary women may find a relationship in Jane's life similar to their own. Perhaps they will learn - as this reviewer who is a grandmother, learned many years ago - that nothing is more important than marriage and children. Rachel Pastan is the author of This Side of Married and other works of short fiction, and teaches at Swarthmore College.

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