Our Coun­try Friends

  • Review
By – December 13, 2021

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.

Discussion Questions