February 2007

Angela Stubbs

fiction

Casual by Oksana Robski

Desperate Housewives have officially put the suburban celebrity on the map. Whether it’s through real-life encounters turned fictionalized accounts of suburban life or actresses that masquerade as the quirky neighbor, business woman or adulterer à la Melrose Place, one thing is for sure, the world has become intrigued with these. Oksana Robski, author of the novel Casual tells her own version that details the lives lead by the “nouveau riche” in modern day Russia. Translated from the original Russian text by Antonina W. Bouis, this tale of murder, corruption, love and hate unravel in ways that seem anything but foreign to those in suburbia.

Robski writes about Moscow’s exclusive neighborhood, Rublyovka, which is in the most prestigious part of town for anyone who deems themselves “the elite.” The landscape here is replete with tycoons, politicians and parties straight out of the Studio 54 days. In this world, drugs and parties almost always go hand-in-hand with wearing haute couture dresses, and the name dropping goes on forever. Often, Robski’s detailed accounts of conversations our heroine has with friends feel very superficial. After several pages of these exchanges you begin to feel as if you’d eavesdropped on a conversation between Paris Hilton and her latest best friend. Casual attempts to shed light on the lives the “nouveau riche” in Russia, however, based on Robski’s account, we are getting a watered-down version of what currently exists in American pop culture and celebrity life. It’s tough to make any distinction between social-climbing women in Russia and those who grace the pages of W magazine. Both cultures seem to delight in carrying around dogs in Louis Vuitton bags and dressing them up in canine couture that cost more than some middle-class Americans make in a year.

This novel could have been written as nonfiction since much of Robski’s accounts of upscale goings-on in Russia are based on her own life and interactions with those who currently live the life of the rich and famous. The excessive detail about social climbing and Botox, designers and clubs, drugs and affairs becomes boring within the first 30 pages. The business world in Moscow gets put under the microscope in these pages, albeit briefly, but the real story about the upper-crust in Russia could quite possibly be about those who succeed in business without really trying. Serge, the husband of our heroine is introduced to us on page one, had been gunned down in front of their apartment building in broad daylight because he was a successful business man who was ultimately killed for having had a profitable business. This book eludes to the fact that Moscow’s business world, at least for the wealthy and successful, is run somewhat like being in the Mob. In a country where the poor get poorer and businesses lose out to work being done abroad, a novel about Serge would have been fascinating, but soon it's back to the endless listing of brand names.

Robski doesn’t allow herself to get involved with the details that could make her characters more interesting. As the story progresses we find the heroine is suspected as a target for her husband’s murder, yet she is slow to put the puzzle pieces together to figure out the motive. Our heroine doesn’t learn any lesson from her husband’s death/business dealings and finds herself following in his footsteps. She opens her own business mid-story only to have it fail shortly after and is forced to sell her house to cover her debts. She has a small epiphany during this temporary turmoil and quickly packs her things in the name of a fresh start, leaving for India. Assuming she’ll have a clean break away from the lives and the lifestyle she had in Moscow, she contemplates a permanent move to Delhi where her daughter and mother could come and stay. Within mere pages we follow our heroine as she goes from getting a loan to buy her new house in India to realizing her life truly is in Moscow, but promising herself that she’ll return to India one day in the future. “I can buy a house here in a few years. At a time when a nice young man in a turban carrying around a folding chair behind me will not be an annoyance.”

Casual is a novel that will entertain those who are interested in a 300-page tabloid account of life in Russia. There’s no doubt Oksana Robski really does know about the social playground of Russia’s elite, but she misses the opportunity to expound on some of the more interesting characters in the novel, which could have saved this story, involved less brand-name dropping and a lot more depth.    

Casual by Oksana Robski
Regan Books
ISBN: 0060892641
280 Pages