There’s an old game I’ve heard people play (and have played myself) about what might be a worse thing to happen. Players imagine the worst thing that could happen and are challenged by other players trying to come up with something worse. The challenge is followed by a long discussion about which is worse and why. Domnica Radulescu’s novel, Country of Red Azaleas, is not quite a game of what’s worse, but it strongly reminded me of one. The two protagonists of the novel, Lara and Marija, both have tough lives. One lives through war and rape. The other has more existential, less tangible problems. They can’t help comparing their lives and offering sympathy—not to see which of them had it worse, but because they are very empathetic women.
Lara and Marija were the closest of girlhood friends, bonded to each other like sisters. In college, in the early 1990s, Lara met and fell in love with an American. She married him and left for America just as civil war broke out in the former Yugoslav republics. Marija stayed behind with her family in Sarajevo. They lose touch shortly before the Srebrenica Massacre in 1995. Marija survives, but is deeply wounded, physically and emotionally. The two characters do not reconnect until years later, in Los Angeles of all places.
While Marija survives Bosnia, Lara feels lost in Washington, D.C. She believes she should feel lucky for getting out, grateful to her connected American husband. Compared with Marija’s life, what does Lara have to complain about? Anyone who isn’t privy to Lara’s dissatisfaction and lack of passion for her husband and bewilderment about her place in America would probably echo Lara’s family and friends in their insistence that she has a good life. Even Lara herself can’t quite point to what makes her unhappy, except to say that she doesn’t understand her mercurial but boring husband.
The novel picks up steam at the end, when Lara and Marija find each other. After long passages of suburban ennui and an acrimonious divorce, the last part of Country of Red Azaleas feels out of place. Marija has a quest to reclaim the son she left behind in Sarajevo and drags Lara into it. Having her lost friend back gives Lara a stronger sense of self than she’s had in a long time. I started to see the two of them as the kind of people who are incomplete without another self to love and support.
Country of Red Azaleas reads like Lara’s autobiography. Not only is she our primary narrator, she tells her story looking back from some point in the future. There are few “scenes,” as such and little dialog. Lara just tells us what happen, with little tension about how things will come out. It took some getting used to and I’m not sure I even like the style. The ending is rather muddled, too. But Country of Red Azaleas is going to stick with me for a while as I puzzle it through.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2016.