Windsor Armstrong, the protagonist of Alice Randall's stellar sophomore novel Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, has a problem. Her son, star football player Pushkin X, is marrying a Russian lap dancer, and it's driving her crazy. The craziness springs from the fact that Windsor, a professor of Afro-Russian studies with a near fetish for the great poet after whom her son is named, is a control freak who regards her future daughter-in-law with a blunt racism.

The reader is initially not inclined to like Windsor very much. But Randall, the gifted author of the controversial novel The Wind Done Gone, eventually makes us care for the uptight, cerebral and self-obsessed professor. Certainly Windsor has a reason to be uptight; she was the child of a cold and narcissistic mother and a father whose love was so overwhelming that when he finally split with his wife he made Windsor feel guilty for not staying with him no matter that she was all of 10 years old and had no say in custody matters.

Windsor's tumultuous extended family is made up of folks of mixed race and mixed motives. Pushkin X is the product of a rape that occurred just before Windsor arrived at Harvard. Undaunted, she not only decided to keep the baby, but also went on to get her degree, though it meant having to leave her son behind in Detroit with a disreputable caretaker. Her gnawing guilt also colors her attitude toward Pushkin X, but Windsor's love for her son is as all-encompassing as her father's was for her. Randall infuses the book with the aching sadness of a mother who, having struggled and achieved a certain level of success, must find a way to allow her son to live his own life. In Windsor Armstrong, Randall has created an unusual, exasperating but ultimately sympathetic heroine. As Windsor says of herself, "There are stories within me and vanishings about me. Who will I show you? Who do you really need to see?" Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a thought-provoking work from a writer with a unique view of the world.

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