Lady of the Snakes

by Rachel Pastan
Harcourt, Inc. ©2008. 320 pages. $24.00 ISBN: 0-15-101369-1
BEST NOVEL of 2008: Best reading for Summer

A Review by Grace Cavalieri

Your reading life will be complete this summer with Rachel Pastan’s second novel, Lady of the Snakes. This is an action adventure novel where the action is psychological and the mission is filled with suspense. The book demonstrates integrity and love, with new depths of awareness. Lady of the Snakes is a detective story with an emotional life.

Our hero is Jane Levitsky, Professor of 19th century Literature who is slugging it out in academia. This “Jane” is a human presence, an independent spirit with the tenderness of a new mother and the toughness of a determined woman. Her circumstances would exile her to domesticity but she pushes out to the edge of a life in scholarship and research. Jane’s university mentor stands in the way of Jane’s find – that the honored Russian novelist, Grigory Karkov, has appropriated his wife Masha’s diary for his novels.

Evidence of plagiarism is difficult to track down and even harder to retrieve: Jane is up against unyielding arrogance in her field and we find a proportionate set of problems at home. These involve a trying-hard-husband and a precocious preschooler, plus a sexy babysitter just when you don’t need one the most. Accordingly, Jane endeavors to handle it all, because that’s the definition Pastan gives us for a woman at her human and complex best.

The plotting of the novel is by an author who is far ahead of the current pack of fiction writers. There is one moment of contrivance, which we can forgive– for what writer could master Russian, and Literature, and detective work, without a little break by finding the hidden papers in the basement. The snakes in the title come from mythological and literary connections, as well as an actual occurrence. All this is well braided.

If we speak of a feminist perspective in this book, it’s not about a strident woman, but one standing fast with conviction. This is a contribution to the feminist image in literature; a lesson in the ‘clarity of desire.’ Academic interests and spiritual forces propel the main character through marriage, motherhood and ambition, making her an intellectual companion whose company you’ll miss.

Rachel Pastan is the daughter of one of America’s foremost poets, Linda Pastan. Apparently she is, as Henry James phrased “Someone upon whom nothing is lost.” I have not in awhile put down such an adventurous book and felt so comforted by its intelligence.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.