Rachel Pastan's 2004 debut novel, This Side of Married, chronicled the attempts of a well-meaning but pushy mother to manipulate the love lives of her three grown daughters, with often humorous results. Her latest novel, The Lady of the Snakes, delves into one woman's attempt to have the proverbial all a loving husband, an adorable, precocious child and a rewarding and stimulating job.
Jane Levitsky is a talented, intense and exceptionally dedicated graduate student in 19th-century Russian literature, her specific area of interest being the novels of Grigory Karkov, considered a minor but immensely gifted writer, and the oft-overlooked diaries written by his wife Masha. Jane's dissertation argues that the heroines in Karkov's novels are varying, mostly uncomplimentary, versions of his wife; she has begun sifting through Masha's diaries for evidence to support her case. Jane's husband, Billy, a middle-school teacher, does his best to share the childrearing duties after their unplanned first child Maisie is born, but her research is, for the most part, put on hold. Pastan's depiction of Jane through these early months of parenthood is dead-on, as her emotions jump erratically from elation over her newborn daughter to depression over her inability to make any progress on her dissertation feelings with which many readers will empathize.
Things only get worse after the family moves to Madison when Jane gets her first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. Billy is in law school, and Jane struggles to prepare her courses, find just the right daycare for Maisie, and continue her research into Masha's rich, tangled, private, sometimes cryptic diaries. Woven into this saga of familial woes is an intriguing second thread a literary thriller filled with subterfuge and backstabbing, as Jane discovers information about Karkov that could damage not only his reputation, but that of his biographers, some of whom are Jane's colleagues. This winning sophomore novel brings unexpected twists to the familiar theme of the difficulties inherent in the struggle to balance motherhood and a professional career. Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.