It took some guts to enter Anton Chekhov's universe. He's up there in the literary stratosphere, keeping company with Shakespeare. Like the older playwright, he empathetically inhabits a wide range of characters: men and women, servants and masters, city dwellers and country folk.
Catherine Browder thinks of Chekhov as her mentor, and her novellas do very ably conjure the melancholy atmosphere in which his characters drift, aimless and helpless. In "Now We Can All Go Home," she has taken three of his great plays — "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Seagull" — and written continuations for them, an imagined fifth act in narrative form.
In the first novella, "A Visitor From Kharkov," Yelena — the haughty spoiled beauty who with her husband visited Vanya's farm — is here rehabilitated and given an inner life, albeit one of repeated disappointment and discontent.
Exiled in a provincial Ukrainian town, far from St. Petersburg, where she had trained as a pianist, she is locked in a miserable marriage to a much older man whose narrow opinions she had once mistaken for wisdom. Music irritates him, but he finally allows her to take lessons at the local music school, where she begins studies with newly arrived Victorin Levchenko, who is not only a gifted musician but a good-looking, charming young man.
Not surprisingly, she falls in love, but we are in Chekhov country, where there are no happy endings. Levchenko is surprised but unmoved by her declaration. He seems more interested in her stepdaughter Sonya, a plain girl resigned to being overlooked.
Like Chekhov, Browder is more interested in character than plot, which she lets idle and move irresolutely here and there, coming to no resolution. The stories, like the plays, end with vague questions floating in the air.
"Now We Can All Go Home" wonders if the three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, and their brother Andrei will ever find lasting relationships. The story begins with the death of Irina's suitor in a duel. Masha is married to an inoffensive but boring man she despises; the hapless Andrei is coupled to an arrogant shrew, and Olga has only her work as a school headmistress. Again, nothing much seems to happen, but the characters come to individual life.
The last novella, "Our Side of the Lake," which takes up the aftermath of "The Seagull," is seen from the point of view of the very sensible, well-adjusted Dr. Dorn. The doctor, in tragic bewilderment, watches the cruelty of actress diva Arkadina toward her son, the son's suicide, the neighbor girl Nina's betrayal and abandonment at the hands of Arkadina's lover Trigorin.
As a doctor, Dorn had thought himself "immune to unwanted emotion" but to his chagrin, "there it was, springing up like a housecat to a windowsill."
Although initially suspicious of what I suspected as an author's artificial "shtick," I was won over by this sensitive, soberly restrained handling of Chekhov's material.
Brigitte Frase is a Minneapolis critic, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for excellence in reviewing.