By – July 11, 2023

What does it mean to be in a tox­ic rela­tion­ship? How much respon­si­bil­i­ty, if any, does the suf­fer­er bear for sub­ject­ing them­selves to manip­u­la­tion and abuse? Ruth Madievsky explores one such rela­tion­ship between two sis­ters in her nov­el, All-Night Phar­ma­cy. She doesn’t raise these ques­tions overt­ly so much as allow them to sit with read­ers. In doing so, she reveals the fac­tors that led to both sis­ters’ extreme dys­func­tion. Those vari­ables — includ­ing prob­lem­at­ic par­ent­ing, sex­u­al abuse, men­tal ill­ness, addic­tion, and the ances­tral lega­cy of an oppressed peo­ple exposed to vio­lence — con­tribute to the final frac­tal equa­tion, whose feed­back loop results in an ever more com­plex and seem­ing­ly infi­nite pat­tern of destruction.

Through­out the four-part nar­ra­tive, told from the point of view of the unnamed younger sis­ter, the theme of inter­gen­er­a­tional Jew­ish trau­ma pre­dom­i­nates. The narrator’s Jew­ish grand­moth­er recalls her father being mur­dered in St. Peters­burg by the KGB for teach­ing Torah in the base­ment.” She rais­es her own daugh­ter in the US, expect­ing her to thrive in an atmos­phere with­out the con­stant fear of death. But the narrator’s moth­er suc­cumbs to para­noia and depres­sion as an adult, in part from hav­ing been fed a steady stream of fam­i­ly hor­ror sto­ries. She is unable to nur­ture her daugh­ters, who are large­ly left to fend for them­selves. Their father has his own agen­da that doesn’t include them.

The chaos that the narrator’s old­er sis­ter Deb­bie cre­ates and involves her in becomes increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous. Madievsky’s descrip­tion of the narrator’s descent into dark places can leave read­ers feel­ing the need to detox — or at least get some fresh air — after read­ing cer­tain scenes. In one episode, after black­ing out on her nine­teenth birth­day fol­low­ing a bar bath­room encounter, Deb­bie and four men drop off the bloody, grog­gy nar­ra­tor at an ER. Deb­bie, for her part, was in a mood to watch some­thing explode.” Until it’s revealed that the nar­ra­tor has had a mis­car­riage, the impres­sion is that the inci­dent turned from mere­ly” dis­turb­ing and exploita­tive into a life-threat­en­ing sex­u­al assault. Madievsky imbues oth­er inci­dents with sim­i­lar ambi­gu­i­ty, rais­ing ten­sion to an almost unbear­able lev­el and then reliev­ing it with a real­i­ty only slight­ly less awful than our expectation. 

There is a game-like qual­i­ty to Madievsky’s writ­ing. And there are moments of dark humor: when the nar­ra­tor and her psychic/​friend/​lover Sasha vis­it Sasha’s ances­tors’ bur­ial site in Kishinev, the nar­ra­tor mulls over the por­traits on the tomb­stones. Even in death,” she mus­es, they looked as though they were apply­ing for a job in a fac­to­ry or nag­ging their grand­chil­dren to fin­ish soup.” As for her own dead Jew­ish ances­tors, rather than pur­su­ing their shad­owy mem­o­ries, the nar­ra­tor feels she can hon­or them by liv­ing her best life, hop­ing for a world where my dead saw me — a recov­er­ing addict with a psy­chic girl­friend and miss­ing sis­ter, estranged from Judaism and unable to speak any of their lan­guages — and felt proud.” Addi­tion­al­ly, Madievsky employs lit­er­ary maneu­vers that offer a pleas­ing sym­me­try to the text while also test­ing the read­er. For exam­ple, the first and last para­graphs of All-Night Phar­ma­cy both include the phras­es Spend­ing time with my sis­ter, Deb­bie, was like … ” and Often, it was both.” Is the read­er engaged enough to notice the rep­e­ti­tion? If so, the reward is revealed in how the final state­ment dif­fers from the first. The nar­ra­tor hero­ical­ly fights to sta­bi­lize her life. She is, in her own way, a survivor. 

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

Discussion Questions

With prose that alter­nates between super­charged, ver­nac­u­lar, and almost oper­at­ic, Ruth Madievsky’s All-Night Phar­ma­cy takes our idea of what a Jew­ish nov­el can be and stretch­es it like taffy. Madievsky’s unnamed nar­ra­tor cuts her path across thick­ets of gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, tox­ic fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, and per­haps the most truth­ful­ly ren­dered and unnerv­ing­ly fierce desire in recent fic­tion. But there’s moral­i­ty here, too: this is a char­ac­ter who wants to be a good per­son. The book’s also hilar­i­ous — hilar­i­ous, heart­break­ing, and wise.