The Line

The Line BY Olga Grushin. Putnam Adult. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.

The cover of The Line

The afterword to Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, explains that her book is based on Igor Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to Russia, the great composer’s return home after fifty years abroad. More than five thousand fans waited a year in line for a concert he would conduct, establishing schemes to preserve their places and forming “a unique and complex social system.” While the historical circumstances were singular, this makeshift community was not. Elaborate queues were an important part of the Soviet system: People waited in rows for everything—food, clothing, medicine, travel permits—and the line came to form an essential public space, a secular “ritual,” a “fantastic, many headed monster, the hallmark of socialism,” as it has been described by Vladimir Sorokin, author of the 1985 comic novel The Queue, about a group of Soviet citizens standing in a line.

Unlike The Queue, Grushin’s novel ranges further than its titular formation, exploring the lives of Sergei and Anna, a husband and wife, and their son, Alexander. These three take turns waiting to buy tickets for the rumored return of the legendary composer Igor Selinsky. Sergei has treasured Selinsky’s suppressed music since his youth, but he can’t express to his wife the full measure of his love for Selinsky’s work—nor, for that matter, can he admit that he no longer loves his wife and lusts after another woman in the line. (Few characters in this book manage to share more than a sentence of honest emotion before they’re cut off, either by themselves or by a misunderstanding interlocutor.) Anna wishes to give the ticket to her mother, a former ballet dancer; Alexander, a budding black marketer, seems ready to sell the ticket to the highest bidder.

As months pass, the family’s sole allotted ticket comes to embody all of their hopes and those of a barely thawed, though fictionalized, Soviet Union. Their intentions for the ticket frequently change, as numerous tidily ironic coincidences move the plot—not quite forward, but obliquely, as the tickets may never go on sale. Everyone in the line becomes connected to everyone else so that, by the story’s end, all the notable characters have passed through the same matrix, along with a pair of diamond earrings and a couple of hand-scrawled notes. Some of the resulting twists are clever, but too often the puppet strings are visible, made more so by overwrought descriptions of characters able to smell “anxiety” or “loneliness.”

Even so, when Grushin isn’t grasping at poetic effect, there are moments of real insight and emotional heft, such as when Anna realizes that, amid the life-affirming effort to reclaim banned art, the line is “scraping their days empty of meaning and warmth, taking them away from each other, making their lives so much smaller.” The mystery of the queue is that it could lead to some long-desired prize or it could simply be, like so much else in Soviet Russia, another great act of manipulation.