Review of Murray Davis' The Family Goryachevix

family-goryachevix-140The Family Goryachevix
by Murray Davis (Russia 1996–99)
Fine Images Printing
January 2010
154 pages

Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)

MURRAY DAVIS AND I began our Peace Corps training together in rural West Virginia because our two groups — his heading for Western Russia and mine heading for the Russian Far East — were unable to get visas.

Five weeks into training, Russia finally came through and the two groups went our separate ways.

Davis writes that he took a roundabout way to get to his assignment in Western Russia: traveling to China, crossing the border and boarding the Trans-Siberian train. One of his traveling companions was Sergei Goryachev, a friendly fellow from the town of Vladimir who seemed eager to have Davis meet his daughter Tanya.

(In an explanatory email, Davis writes that he took some literary license with this part of the story: the Trans Siberian trip was actually in 1992 and he did not meet Sergei on that trip.)

In any case, Davis finished his training in Vladimir and was assigned there for the rest of his Peace Corps service. The family who hosted him during training turned out to be Tanya’s. Davis describes Tanya as “an attractive fortyish woman” and wonders: “How did Sergei arrange this ‘coincidence’??”

Thus begins the unfolding of Davis’s relationship with The Family Goryachevix. The story is full of anecdotes about the comings and goings of various family members, their legal and emotional troubles, their frustrations and arguments, their financial problems, alcoholism, illnesses, marriages and divorces and joyful celebrations.

But even more, this is the unfolding of Davis’s own later years and his increasing involvement with Tanya, although their age difference is apparently twenty years or more, and he mentions a wife back in the states from whom he had been separated for some years.

His account reads like a personal journal, but that doesn’t mean that it digs very deeply into the heart of his experiences or even into the heart of his own desires and frustrations.

A couple of examples: “Tanya and I have been engaging in sometimes bitter and lengthy arguments . . . I am determined to get through these differences and make it work.” And: “Nina advised us that her brother is not normal, whatever that means to a Russian.”

His observations about Russian customs and habits will provoke nods of agreement from many Volunteers who’ve waited in endless lines for some inconsequential official stamp, been dragged to a birthday party that ended in a drunken argument, or enjoyed a weekend of hard work at a family dacha followed by feasting and singing.

There are some misspellings and punctuation errors, some facts unchecked (“cost was x rubles”), some confusing leaps back and forth in time, and some abrupt closures in places that seem to cry for more information, such as the last mention of  his and Tanya’s relationship: “We departed for Englewood and married life in Florida.”

Here and there in the narrative are Davis’s interesting commentaries about post-perestroika Russia and its impact on people. There is also an excellent 2006 essay at the beginning of the book from The Nation: by Stephen F. Cohen, “The Soviet Union, R.I.P.?” (republished with permission by Agence Global).

Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.

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