Gary Shteyngart’s magnificent new novel is many things: a satire of the creative class, a roundelay of romance, a meditation on contemporary America, and an account of COVID quarantine. Above all, it is a deeply humane appreciation of friendship and love.
Like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a play about disappointment and disenchantment, this story takes place in a country house with Russian proprietors, though in this case the Russians are Jews. It’s the Hudson Valley estate of Sasha Senderovsky, a one-time professor; Masha Senderovsky, a doctor and therapist; and their adoptive eight-year-old daughter, Natasha.
Their four guests are their dearest friends. They’ve known one another for decades, but it’s been a while since they were together. Karen has made a fortune from a dating app called Tröö Emotions, a high-tech “elixir of love” which makes a couple fall in love when they look at subtly altered photos of each other. Vinod, a native of Gujarat, has been a friend of Sasha’s since high school and was once an academic and an aspiring writer. Ed comes from a wealthy Korean family and spends a lot of time traveling for pleasure. Dee is a best-selling author, a former student of Sasha’s, whose writing and public persona grow out of her origins among poor Southern whites.
Love blossoms between different characters. Karen and the precocious “Nat” (as Natasha prefers to be called) develop an instant bond, as if they were parent and child. Vinod has been romantically attracted to Karen for a long time, and being together revives that tension. Meanwhile, Ed has his eye on Dee.
Then the stranger comes to town: an Actor, whose actual name isn’t used until the end. The handsome star of several mass-market films, he confesses unprompted that he “always wanted to play the self-entitled professor who comes to visit Vanya and his family” in the Chekhov play. His very presence is disruptive; his charisma makes everyone self-conscious. His dislike of Sasha’s script for a TV series threatens the future of that project and Sasha’s financial future. And after using Karen’s Tröö Emotions app, he suddenly “looks at Dee in a blaze of heterosexuality.”
A sense of foreboding from the outside world increases as America grapples with the murder of George Floyd, and the virus draws ever nearer.
Gary Shteyngart brilliantly captures the uncertainties and fears during the era of COVID while rejoicing in the possibilities of love in all its unexpected permutations. Ever the masterful satirist, he gently evokes the foibles of the media/intellectual elite while capturing the casual malice in social media. With Our Country Friends, he has also revealed an extraordinary sensitivity to the complexities of human vulnerability and love, and portrays them with the depth and verve of the finest novelists.